A Few Words on Advice

Parker Palmer, a writer I read frequently, had the following to say about advice:

“Advice-giving comes naturally to our species, and is mostly done with good intent. But in my experience, the driver behind a lot of advice has as much to do with self-interest as interest in the other’s needs — and some advice can end up doing more harm than good.”*


How often do we give advice when simply presence and acknowledgement is required?  I was thinking about this after a trip last week where I visited our historic site Belle Grove and spoke with a class of graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Virginia.  We found ourselves in a very good conversation about how we should “hear, understand, and honor” diverse stories from our past and present at both places.  Presence and acknowledgement are being used effectively at Belle Grove in the response to diverse perspectives and stories.  At UVA, there was a back-and-forth with the students around hearing, listening, and engagement.

One of the students suggested that we change our name to the “National Trust for Historic Engagement!”  I immediately warmed to the idea, as I like the thought of engaging the past with the present.  Much of our traditional way of telling and interpreting history has to do with the self-interest of the interpreter, as opposed to interest in the other’s needs, much less the true story.

You may think these Monday posts fall into the “giving advice” category, which could lead you to see this entire commentary as self-contradictory.  However, I appreciate the way one of my colleagues responded, when she wrote that with her passion for personal growth it was meaningful “to be invited to pause on something so grounding.”  That’s exactly the intent: as an invitation at the beginning of the work week to pause and reflect.  If I’m doling out advice in the future (which I’ll occasionally do), I hope I can now stop and think first about whose interest is driving the conversation.

Have a good week.

More to come…


* At the risk of giving you advice, I recommend this post by Palmer — a regular writer for Krista Tippett’s On Being project — where he recounts the story of a friend who had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and the well-meaning advice received from others.

The World Has Need of You

Dome at Union Chapel

The dome at Union Chapel

I was reading several essays by the Quaker educator, activist, and author Parker Palmer recently when I came across one that included a poem with the title, “The World Has Need of You.”  He was drawn to this work by poet Ellen Bass in part because of her line “It’s a hard time to be human.”

Any time can be a hard time to be human, but we do find ourselves living in what can charitably be called interesting—perhaps historic—times.  Palmer makes the point that each of our lives, words, and actions makes a difference, especially in times of stress and widespread anger.  The world needs us to think and then act broadly and deeply, with integrity and charity, as part of a community.

Palmer links to another essay by the writer Courtney Martin that deals with first questions.  First questions that stay with us for a lifetime, such as an eight-year-old Dorothy Day, witnessing the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and shaping the rest of her life around the question of why we wait until times of stress to care for others without judgment instead of “Why can’t people always care for one another unconditionally?” First questions that drive us to understand that the world needs us.

Detail from Triumphs and Laments

Detail from Triumphs and Laments by William Kentridge (Rome, 2016)

All of this has me thinking about my own first questions, and what actions the world—at home, work, in community, and globally—needs from me now.

Have a good week.

More to come…