Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Random Bits of Advice

As a professor, I've gotten used to students coming by the office for advice on a miscellany of issues, from what classes to take to whether parents are being unreasonable for filing divorce papers in the middle of the semester; from what graduate schools to consider to how best to tell the parental units of a non-mainstream sexual orientation; from how to deal with a failing grade to how to deal with a failing relationship. I'm not entirely sure how or why I've become Mother Confessor / Dear Abby, but I do know what the students tell me: that I'm a good listener and that I give great advice. For that, I thank my father.

It's easy to give good advice when in my life I had a father who had given me excellent advice. When I wonder what I should do, the voice I hear is Dad's -- even though he's been gone since 2004. Raised in a house with three older sisters meant that there was a great deal of aggravation for the younger me. I could depend on Dad to be there to advise and to point out the humor of the situation. Years later, I found out that one of his favorite stories was about one of those frustrating times. I was about 7 and deeply exasperated with one of my siblings. He said, with all kindness intended, "You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your family." He laughed whenever he recalled the reply of that 7-year-old: "Yeah, but you sure can try to pick them off!" As I got older, and began to understand the undercurrents and complexities of our family dynamics, his bits of advice were better taken.

He was more than my support system in trying times, he was a fount of great wisdom in all aspects of life. I turned to him for guidance on all sorts of things -- from how to change a tire in the rain by myself to how to deal with relationship issues. I will admit, as is the case with most adolescents and young adults, I would on occasion ignore his exemplary advice -- even saying such things as "I need to learn from my own mistakes", which is a mistake in and of itself -- but in the end, I found that his advice was most excellent.

Thus, as I listen to my students' and friends' tales of dissatisfaction with life, I channel my father. Sometimes, people just want to know that they're on the right track. Other times, they need a gentle devil's advocate to ease them back into rationality. Most just need a touchstone to help them on their way through life. Often, that touchstone is found in the advice-seeker's own words, it just needs to be refined into a simple statement. This is where Dad's best quality, which he then taught to me, was of great assistance: listening. Sometimes, listening is all that is needed. I've had a number of students thank me for my great counsel even when I've said nothing at all; they had managed to work it all out on their own just saying what they needed to out loud. Other times, listening allows me to get to the core of the problem, and from there the advice suggests itself.

Recently, a student came to me for dating advice. After listening to her complaints about the imperfect men in her life and their sometimes unreasonable expectations of her, I gave her a rule that has held me in good stead for decades: 'If you truly love someone, you'd be willing to change everything about yourself for that person; if they truly love you, they'd never ask you to.' She stopped for a moment, thought about that, and told me that I was brilliant. No, I told her, my father had given me that bit of wisdom when I was 15 and it took me a while to realize that it was sound advice, but following it led me to my wonderful husband. "Your father must have been a very smart guy" was her response.

Yes, he was.

Soon it will be another Father's Day without him, and I miss him -- and his advice -- dearly, but I have a hoard of his suggestions, opinions, and recommendations to draw upon whenever I'm stuck for what to do or say. For me, the abbreviation is WWDS -- What Would Dad Say?

Got any wisdom from you father you'd like to share? I'm listening.
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