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  • Melissa Panara

Ask Away

Well, it happened.

After three hilarious seasons, my favorite podcast, Don’t Ask Tig, has come to an end. You might remember me mentioning it in Life Is Written In Pencil. The final episode dropped on September 27th, and although there are plenty of other things to be sad about these days, I have to say I’m pretty bummed.*

In case you never caught an episode, it went like this: along with a celebrity guest, comedian Tig Notaro would answer listener questions in the style of Dear Abby and Ann Landers. If you are younger than 40, you probably only know these names from Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song. But back in the day, their newspaper-column counsel was considered to be top shelf. In keeping with the name of the podcast, however, the advice from Tig and friend always ranked somewhere between, “Well… I guess maybe…” and “Yeah, definitely don’t do that”. And I loved every ridiculous minute of it.

Each episode wrapped with a song called Listen To Your Heart, by Edie Brickell (sound clip below). The gist of the song is “As much as I want to help and protect you, I can’t tell you what to do.” Very wise. But since the entire podcast was in service to people wanting that very thing, I think a song called Listen To Your Heart … And Then, If You Want, Call Me To Talk About What Your Heart Said might have more accurately fit the bill. Sadly, neither Tig nor Edie asked me to weigh in. But I do think I’m onto something here.

It is today, and this is what I’m thinking. First, there is no denying that human beings are interdependent. In today’s culture, we put lots of emphasis on children becoming independent and self-sufficient, however we shouldn’t forget that we are built to depend on one another. It is exactly why people have survived for thousands and thousands of years; no one person did all of the hunting, all of the gathering, all of the everything. We’ve persisted because we have done so together.

A present day lesson, then, is that we can listen to our hearts AND find someone who can help us navigate life’s challenges. We don’t have to do it completely on our own. In fact, I don’t think we are supposed to. Trusted friends can help us consider a different vantage point or provide an expertise we don’t have. Advice can be a good thing. And other people can help us see a general map of where we are without giving us turn by turn directions. Those directives, I’d argue, should still come from your own heart.

Most of the time, people give advice in an attempt to be helpful. Wouldn’t you agree? They’ve had a similar experience and want to save you the annoyance or heartache of learning something the hard way. Their guidance is well-intended. This is probably because we’re all taught, somewhere along the way, that being helpful is a good thing. A virtue. Besides that, helping feels good to the helper, so on the face of it, it is seemingly win-win: you get help, I get to be the helper. But while everyone does (possibly) stand to win, the advice giver is making a few assumptions here.

For starters, the advice giver is assuming that their conversation-mate sees their situation as a problem to be solved. It is quite possible they do not. For example, it came up in a recent conversation that Michael is taking physics this year. I didn’t indicate that he was having any trouble with it, yet before I could say “he really loves it”, my friend texted me the cell number of a great physics tutor. And you should text him soon because he really books up. I’m pretty sure I looked behind me to make sure she wasn’t talking to someone else. But, no. The help was directed at me; she was giving me a solution to a problem I did not have.

Let’s say, though, there is a problem. Enthusiastic advice givers are often quick to assume that their conversation-mate wants their input. They don’t wait to be asked before shelling out their words of wisdom or surefire plan. They have already taken the stance of more-knowing friend. A little off-putting, wouldn't you agree? In our conversation, my friend didn’t listen long enough to find out if I was building to a request for help. (I wasn’t, but she didn’t know that). She could have waited for me to say if Michael was struggling or not before mentioning the tutor. Or maybe simply said that her son ended up needing a tutor for that class and having one really made all the difference. In that way, she was letting me know that she could be a resource, either now or in the future, if Michael started to need more help in physics.

[It must be said that, even though I am aware of everything I’ve just layed out, I’m sure that from time to time I’ve been the “no one asked you” advice giver. If I’ve done it to you, please accept my apology. You are a fully capable person, and I am FAR from all-knowing. My goal is to be a good listener and supportive friend, so as an easily distracted work-in-progress, I often miss the mark]

I think the key to the whole thing is this: Someone has to ask a question.

If you are the advice giver on-deck, you could ask some version of the following: “Would you like me to give you some thoughts on this or just listen?” They might just want a sounding board as they process things out loud. Or maybe they are just sharing something neutral and non problematic. Wait until there is a natural pause to decide.

If you are the potential advice recipient, you might ask, “Would you mind giving me your take on this?” or “What was your experience with this?”

One of those two things should happen before advice hits the airwaves. Someone has to ask a question.

Now, you might be thinking, “Isn’t your book, Life Is Written In Pencil, full of unsolicited advice?” Okay, that is fair. And the answer is perhaps. But I think that your decision to start and continue reading is a little like you asking the question. I’m comfortable with this loophole. Plus I put a lot of effort into reminding the reader that my intention was to offer options to consider rather than rules to follow. Only you get to decide and amend what is right and true for you.

In that last Don’t Ask Tig episode, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was Tig’s celebrity guest. Julia, in commenting on her inability to steer anyone in the right direction, admitted “I have no advice for anyone… I’m on a search for wisdom myself”. Me too, yet I do stand by one piece of unsolicited-yet-ironclad advice. When invited to a gathering, if nothing else, show up with Pringles and Milanos. You’ll be a hero.

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