Like Amitai Etzioni I am an inveterate reader of advice columns. I believe that anyone who gets into the business of therapy or coaching should make an effort to work through the dilemmas these columns address. Every advanced degree program in clinical psychology or coaching should include a course on Miss Manners.
Learning how to deal with real dilemmas is far more useful than mastering a myriad of theoretical abstractions. Believe me, I know.
Most serious thinkers look down on the practice of giving advice. Therapists disparage it in favor of their own favorite activities of asking how it feels and offering empathy. Perhaps because therapy has always looked down on advice-giving, this essential human activity has been relegated to the Style pages.
To my mind advice columns are like the common law. They adjudicate before they theorize. They offer solutions to specific dilemmas faced by real people. They do not offer grand theoretical constructions and beautiful abstractions.
A few days ago Etzioni wrote a column about some advice offered by Carolyn Hax, advice columnist of the Washington Post. Link here.
A woman wrote to Hax explaining that her sister had asked permission to name her as her children's guardian in the event of her and her husband's death.
Surprisingly, the aunt refused. She explained that she and her husband had chosen not to have children, and if she did not want to care for children of her own she was not going to risk bringing up someone else's children, even her sister's.
Her sister and brother-in-law did not take kindly to this refusal. Now there is a rift in the family.
Even more surprising was Hax's response, summarized by Etzioni: "...responsibility for children lies with the parents, ... extended family are under no obligation to accept this responsibility for themselves."
Etzioni was appalled by this redefinition of responsibility. So am I. Hax seems to be saying that the mother should be duty-bound respect the wishes of the childless aunt.
I would note that this mother did not intend to send her children over to their aunt tomorrow afternoon. She is not trying to pawn them off on their aunt. She is asking for a minimal gesture, one that would only become relevant in the most extreme situations.
Reasonably so. Considering how painful and disruptive it would be for children to be orphaned, would it not be best to know that they will be cared for by family members and not strangers.
None of this seems to have mattered to the aunt and uncle. Their insensitivity belies a very thin skin indeed, and suggests that they are far from comfortable with their decision to remain childless.
The larger problem is cultural. We live in a culture where people are told that they have only one loyalty and one true responsibility: to do as they please and to live as they wish.
Such an anti-ethic manifests a fundamental narcissism, but it also suggests that being loyal to your heart's desire relieves you of responsibility to family and community.
I agree heartily with Etzioni's point, namely, that if the only person you take responsibility for is You, then you simply do not know what it means to take responsibility.