Hold the advice. They’re not listening!

September 26, 2010 at 8:03 PM 7 comments

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For the one- or two-hundredth time in twenty years, I spotted the Bird Feeder of Riverdale. He is a terse character in his late forties with a perpetual five o’clock shadow and the same lean, bird-like profile he had in his youth. When I last saw him, he was toting two brown paper bags of bread, presumably day-old, that he scattered in the neighborhoods east and west of the Henry Hudson Parkway. The Bird Feeder has been feeding generation after generation of pigeons and starlings in precisely this way, against the wishes of people who find these birds more environmental gadfly than godly creation.

The Bird Feeder’s oddness is easy to spot from half a block away. My oddness and yours, though, would be just as easy to see except that we view our own eccentric personalities as the baseline for normal human behavior. I never realize this so clearly as when I am with my own family and friends.

In the past few weeks, for example, I have listened to people in their twenties insist that they be allowed to live their lives as they see fit: Eschewing once-in-a-lifetime educational opportunities, killing time in dead-end relationships and looking for the easy way out on the job. All the counsel that I or any other adult could offer — all the predictions about impending disaster based on personal experience and the hapless lives we have witnessed — would only rankle the young people. Sadly, we can do little else but watch them screw up royally.

That’s my conclusion anyway. Many of my friends and acquaintances insist on “guiding” their children. They give advice about what to major in at college, what profession to take on, whom to date and where to live. Whenever I catch myself wanting to offer advice, and whenever I see others fall prey to this weakness, I recall a book by Bruno Bettelheim called A Good Enough Parent in which he concludes that giving advice is a fool’s errand.

Bettelheim wrote that all of us are deaf to the most intelligent, well-meaning advice because comprehension is borne of personal experience. It’s true that listening to people wiser than we might save us dozens of missteps. But human beings simply aren’t engineered to listen and “get it.” First we have to embrace our arrogance, then trip all over it and finally begin the tortuous journey of heading down our own gnarly path.

I remember a dream that my mother shared with me when I was in my twenties. She said she saw me walking along a river bank and warned me that I was going to fall in and get dirty. I refused to listen to her and naturally I fell into the river and got dirty. My mother’s dream was prescient: Throughout my life, I blundered and stumbled, crashed and burned. But along the way, I also figured out how I wanted to live, who I wanted to befriend and what I wanted to accomplish. I may not have achieved everything I want to yet, and I may have fallen far short of my own standards, but I also have nobody to blame but myself.

It’s painful to hear the twentysomethings in my life lash out at their parents, who have been trying to steer them down the straight and narrow path that they themselves wish they had taken in their youth. The consequences are unavoidable. These lovely and strange young adults are beginning to become their own Bird Feeders of Riverdale — as I and everyone I know have.

I should know better, but I will presume to offer the advice of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14:

“Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every work into judgment, with every hidden thing, whether it is good, or whether it is evil.”

I would translate King Solomon’s words this way: Let the twentysomethings around us fall whichever way they will, and trust that when they are ready to head out, they will make their way back to us — the way we have found our way back to our parents.


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Entry filed under: Bookpod, college, Education, Emotions, Family, Friendship.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rukhl  |  September 26, 2010 at 9:05 PM

    They may not be listening but I’ll keep on giving my sons advice anyway. As long as it’s done politely, and I listen to their side, too, I think I might still have some influence. Time will tell.

    • 2. Bookpod  |  September 26, 2010 at 9:22 PM

      Ever the cockeyed optimist! Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

  • 3. Sara Bennett  |  September 27, 2010 at 11:29 AM

    Very wise! It’s all about trust and instilling a few good values along the way, hopefully by example.

  • 5. Helen Zegerman Schwimmer  |  September 27, 2010 at 2:16 PM

    Barbara, while reading your always insightful blog, I’m was reminded of another powerful line from Ecclisiastes:
    “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
    We parents who have been there, done that will always try to caution our children about making the same painful mistakes. It comes with the territory. I seem to recall that back in the sixties some smart guy took advantage of this generational divide and came up with a billion dollar company, the gap.

  • 6. Max  |  October 10, 2010 at 3:23 PM

    We listen more than you think.

    • 7. Bookpod  |  October 10, 2010 at 3:29 PM

      I’m kwying!!!


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