Asking for, and Giving Advice

Would you ask someone anonymous for advice online?

Not advice on which car to buy or which book to read, but life advice. About love, career, grief, family and relationships. I thought of this as I read Cheryl Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who’s Been There.” The book is a compilation of advice columns Strayed wrote online as “Sugar” on The Unlike other advice columns, “Dear Sugar” became a cult-favourite because it offered something which is increasingly missing in modern life — radical empathy. It doesn’t deal with problems by using abstract jargon. There’s no “find yourself by taking a vacation which is really just running away from your issues.” Instead, the advice is usually “sit down with yourself, begin the hard work of digging yourself out of this hole, stop self-pity and get therapy.”

I have always been fascinated by advice columns; something about the idea of putting down your problems on paper and giving over the reins of your life to a person outside the orb of your daily existence. When I was in middle school, I was among a group of students who were planning to start a magazine. Everyone had ideas. Poetry, current affairs, cartoons, reporting school news (which usually meant who won what on Sports Day.) I wanted to start an advice column. “But who will write it?” our teacher-in-charge asked me. “I will! I will answer the letters!”

I imagine she must have looked at me — all of 14-years-old, with an eager face half-covered by enormous glasses and a long plait — and sighed to herself at the endless confidence of the young. As far as I was concerned, the fact that I had no life experiences to draw from wasn’t a problem. I read books all the time so I was “wiser than my classmates,” I argued with my teacher. I wrote well. And most importantly, I reasoned, I was “responsible” and not like “other children who wasted time being boyfriend girlfriend, ma’am.” Of course, I was turned down by my teacher, bless her heart. And it would take me a couple of years to let go of the arrogance of “not being like other girls” — to look at reading and well, making boyfriends just as ways in which people live life differently and not as invisible signifiers of “Good” and “Bad.”

But the desire to be a wise woman, writing to people who would bare their soul to me, remained. As my friends would attest, I am good at giving advice. I listen well, and then offer logical advice, often supplemented by a good pros and cons list and/or a beautiful ghazal.

Let me demonstrate. Let’s suppose, dear reader, you’re attracted to someone you don’t know much about but are unsure whether to ask them out. Here’s my advice. First, think about whether this is strong attraction that you can’t shake off or just a passing fancy. Then, think of win-loss situations. If you don’t ask them out, you’ll always be wondering “what if.” And who knows, what if they are attracted to you too and are wary of making the first move. Too many uncertain variables. Most importantly, do you want to be 85 and look back regretfully at your life? (Most people say no. Most.) But if you do ask them out, what’s the worst-case scenario? They reject you. Which yes, is terrible, but at least you can now get over them and move on. You have a definite answer, even if it’s one you don’t like. It’s a win-win. If at this point, my advicee (who’s usually a friend) still seems unconvinced by my very MBA-type advice, I back off. After all, there’s a difference in being an annoying life-coach and a good friend.

The one place though, where my confidence in advice-giving skills fades is r/relationships. . If there is one place on the Internet which gives a tantalizing glimpse into how human beings are living their lives, it’s this. r/relationships is a wildly popular Reddit thread where a community of Reddit users give advice to (usually anonymous) people asking for help with their inter-personal relationships. The posts are categorized according to “Controversial,” “New,” “Romance” etc. From everyday toxic relationships to truly bizarre situations (“my husband’s family talk like mices?!”) to thought-provoking posts which start an argument on changing gender roles, r/relationships is the Internet being your agony aunt. Reading most posts on r/relationships, I balk at the narrowness of my life experiences. How do you advise a 19-year-old woman who’s pregnant and dependent on her abusive boyfriend, without taking into account the limited opportunities she has to dump him? A scroll through r/relationships is a good reminder of just how terribly messy life is and how sometimes, advice coming from an anonymous user doesn’t work in untangling the mess. Or even making it more bearable.

But sometimes, lightning strikes. And an advice column transcends one person’s issues to work as a guiding philosophy for so many. On 3 June 2010, a Dear Sugar column went viral.

“Dear Sugar, WTF, WTF, WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day.

Instead of ignoring this letter, Strayed answered it. By talking about her experience of being sexually abused as a child and how she hadn’t realised what had happened to her until she was much older. Until she found a baby bird which was dying. She ends the letter with these lines.

“There it was! There it was again. Right there in the paper bag. The ghost of that old man’s cock would always be in my hands. But I understood what I was doing this time. I understood that I had to press against it harder than I could bear. It had to die. Pressing harder was murder. It was mercy. That’s what the fuck it was. The fuck was mine. And the fuck is yours too, WTF. That question does not apply “to everything every day.” If it does, you’re wasting your life. If it does, you’re a lazy coward and you are not a lazy coward.
Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it.”

And if I may add to Sugar’s resounding life advice on this Sunday: Ask that person out.

1. I have read this excerpt of Shanta Gokhale’s memoir in thrice now and I can’t wait to read her book. I also think “Sorry yaar, really sorry” is a brilliant way to turn down old friends who want to marry you.

"He’s proposing to you for god’s sake. Can’t you see? But he was an old pal whom I had slapped on the back and laughed with; whose home I had visited dozens of times. He would be one of the first friends I would invite to my wedding if ever I got married. But did I see him standing beside me in a silk kurta, wearing the garland I had put around his neck? I shook my head. “Sorry yaar. Really sorry.” “It’s okay,” he sighed. Two months later he came over to invite me to his wedding. He was marrying his medical school classmate"

2. If the Lion King adhered to lion pride dynamics then Simba’s mother would have been the star of the film as this piece in National Geographic delightfully argues. (I know it’s a Hamlet interpretation, but still)

"A lion pride is all females all the time. They catch the vast majority of the food, and they guard the territory from intruders—mostly other females that live nearby looking to expand their own territories. “Females are the core. The heart and soul of the pride. The males come and go,” says Craig Packer, one of the world’s leading lion researchers and director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota."

3. If you live in Delhi, you would be as frustrated with the heat as I am. But at least we have ACs. This piece by Nilanjana Roy talks about the people who don’t and are bearing the brunt of Delhi’s heat wave.

"I’m in the Ghazipur area. I step out of the car with the arrogance of a lifelong Delhiwallah, looking up at the burning garbage mountain, convinced that my lungs, already leathered and mummified by the bad air, can take it. Within seconds, my chest feels aflame. My coughs are ratchety, tubercular—a pathetic display of weakness for someone who thought she’d accustomed to the city’s fetid air by now. A child runs past, a worn cricket bat in his hand. He looks at me with pity and scorn. I’m just one of the many who are too soft for his part of Delhi."

As always, there’s nothing more I enjoy than receiving and replying to your emails; so if anything in this newsletter sparked a funny memory or a curious question, hit ‘Reply.’

If you liked what you read, ask others to subscribe, including that friend who you go to for life advice.

I will write soon.