Books Magazine

How Not To Give Good Advice

By Litlove @Litloveblog

I’ve been on a run of books lately that all deal with heartbreak and grief. In one a man flies aimlessly around the world for two years, unable to come to terms with the loss of his beloved. In another, an otherwise staid headmaster takes off his clothes and walks naked through a snowy Central Park, in what turns out to be the last of a series of hallucinations produced by an unhinged mind. In a third, we don’t know what happened, only that there was an ominous silence in the story for six years. I’m not sure if the gods of literature are trying to make me feel better or worse about my son, who is still often lost and lacking direction after his brush with heartbreak. The novels are all in agreement, however, about the state of mourning love: the mourner needs people and pushes them away, he wants to do things but cannot summon the energy, there is a blank absence of purpose and nothing makes much sense. Many people give well-meant but infuriating advice, larded with the usual platitudes.

The latter has been me, it seems, lately. Honestly, you’d think I’d never dealt with a troubled student before in my life. For four years, I calmly accepted whatever the students threw at me in terms of personal problems and I barely flinched. I felt great compassion, usually, for their struggles and a firm, steady belief that they would get past them and find their way again. In fact, I was generally convinced that what they were doing in their personal wilderness would turn out to be very valuable in the long run. As painful as their experiences might be, it was quite likely they were losing comfortable illusions that really didn’t do them any good, and getting closer to the inconvenient truth of who they were. In other words, they were growing up.

But when it’s my son who’s miserable, it feels completely different. Here I am, instantly exhorting him to buck up and feel better, to try something new and take a chance, all things that frankly you have to be feeling strong to even comtemplate doing. Forget taking the time it takes to heal, I want him back up on his feet right now, or yesterday, ideally. We fell out on the phone at the start of the week because he was expressing a feeling that he had no future, and I was instantly trying to point out how ridiculous such a statement was, coming from a 19-year-old. And I really should know better! If I had forgotten that we calculate the future by taking a snapshot of the past, I should remember at least that when we feel properly miserable, the only way forward is one day at a time, or a half-day on the bleak stretches.

What becomes very clear to me is that when we say ‘Buck up’, we are really saying, please take your pain out of the public view because it is causing me discomfort. And we’re also saying, a little bit, I am superior, because if it were me, I would recover quicker and easier than you are doing; I wouldn’t make such a fuss. Things, in other words, that are designed to make us feel better, and have nothing to do with the person who’s sad. The nicest interpretation of the buck-up is that sometimes we have to hold a positive image of the other person’s strengths while they have temporarily lost access to it. And sometimes we can remind them of all the possibilities and opportunities that they still possess. But the main thing that study support taught me – and which I seem daily to forget – is that healing emotions and minds is exactly like healing physical ailments. If you’ve broken a leg, you can’t just get up and walk on it, there’s a process to be gone through. If you’ve broken a heart, there’s all sorts of feelings that can’t be accessed until the time is right for them.

But this is much easier to accept when you are not invested in the life and happiness of the person who suffers. I am caught by my longing for my son to feel happy again, because I love him and I hate the fact he’s sad. I would do anything to make him better. In fact, the one saving grace of late is that when I have clumsily counselled him and he has got mad at me, it does seem to relieve some of his feelings. I find this reassuring – I can mess up and yet somehow this turns out to be okay! When I’m feeling sensible, I do realize this is the extent of my possible involvement, as the most powerful thing he can do is to rescue himself. In the meantime, I have plenty of novels reminding me of this, though once I’ve finished the one I’m reading, I may look for something with jokes. It seems there’s only so much good advice that anyone can take.

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