Friday, October 12, 2012

Dear Sugar, the Newest Advice Column

In the world of advice columns Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar is quite the phenomenon.

Until a few days ago I did not know it existed. But then, as if by magic, I ran across Jessica Weisberg’s article about it in The New Yorker.

Weisberg's is not a very good article. It is not very well written, not very interesting, and not very compelling. In places it is positively mindless.

In the past you could count on The New Yorker to publish good and thoughtful writing. In the new politicized New Yorker that is apparently too much to expect.

Being a fan of advice columns, especially of the sublime Miss Manners, I decided to check out Dear Sugar.

Before reading some of her columns I settled on a memoirish story called “The Love Of My Life,” published in The Sun Magazine.

Whatever else you think of Strayed, she is a very talented writer. She has always known that she had a way with words and has always felt compelled to try to realize her talent. One cannot but applaud.

Unfortunately, not knowing what to write about she lit on herself.  She might have decided to become an authority on British novels or the battle of Trafalgar or corn. She did not.

She did what so many aspiring young writers do: she decided to write about her own life.

But, that poses a problem. Why would anyone be interested in your own private Idaho? Why would anyone care what you felt and what you thought?

In truth, most people do not much care about you. They are more concerned with themselves and those near and dear to them.

If you want to be a writer you need to find a way to make them care. You can do it by turning your life into material, into compelling drama, into a story that rises about the banal to grasp at universal significance.

Writers who fail at universal import often settle for shock and awe.

Sad to say, but some young writers and artists get themselves into extraordinary situations because they are looking for something compelling to write about.

In “The Love Of My Life” Cheryl Strayed succeeds in writing a very good story, indeed. One would have preferred that she not have to live through it. You do best not to try at home.

In the story, a young married Strayed tries to overcome her grief over her mother’s death by going on a bender, on a sex bender. She has sex here, there and everywhere, with him and with her and with her husband.

Eventually she tells her husband. It is not a happy day.

As a cure, Strayed’s sex therapy does not work. It doesn’t assuage the feelings of grief and loss. It doesn’t provide the connection that Strayed felt she had lost. It doesn’t even distract from her pain.

Strayed depicts herself as out of control. Her body, her feelings, her desires are dictating her behavior. It’s almost as though she is a puppet. Or, as though she is caught in script that is not of her own making. By her account her free will is for nothing in the play between the forces that are throwing her hither and yon.

Only at the end of the story does she accept and act as an individual with free will. Thereby, she arrives at something resembling a solution to her problem.

She writes that she got over her grief by doing what she had to do. That would be: taking a consequential moral action.

You cannot get over grief or depression by making your life a constant psychodrama. Doing what you have to do will move you in the right direction.

Jessica Weisberg seems to think that Strayed is sharing her messy life so that everyone who has a messy life will feel that he or she is not alone.

It’s called a cure by empathy, a staple of the therapy world.

From another angle, Strayed’s story might be a cautionary tale, a recommendation that people not try what she did.

I have read a few of Strayed’s columns. They engage your interest because they are well written and because they tell compelling stories, most often from her messy life. But they often provide sage counsel, almost as though the bitter pill were being sugar coated for a cohort of readers that has done far too much therapy.

According to Weisberg:

Advice columnists are not therapists or pastors. They are performers, and the traditional advice column was designed to be playful. 

Weisberg notwithstanding, advice columnists are not performers; their advice is not playful and it is not entertainment. To say otherwise is mindless. People do not read Miss Manners because they want a playful diversion from life.

Miss Manners is not a therapist. In most cases she is much better than a therapist.

People read advice columns because they want advice. When faced with complex moral dilemmas they want to know what is right and wrong. They want to know what they should and should not do.

They want to be more respectful, more civil, more sociable… a better friend, a better parent, a better lover.

If they are involved in business they often seek out advice from friends, family and mentors.

Advice is a serious business. An individual who seeks advice is showing humility. He knows that he does not have all the answers and that the truth is not going to well up from the depth of his psyche.

No one gets anywhere in life without knowing how to take advice.

Advice columns are an offshoot of etiquette books, even books about ethics. They show people how to relate to each other in civil society.

If you read Gordon Wood’s book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, you will discover that the founding fathers of the Republic were acutely of the challenge involved in creating a civil society where people could know what was required of them. They needed to know the new rules of the game because they wanted to establish a nation where human connections did not depend on bloodlines.

Wood writes:

All the founding fathers were aware of these conventions of civility, and all in varying degrees tried to live up to them. But no one was more serious in following them than Washington. He wanted desperately to know the proper rules of behavior for a liberal gentleman, and when he discovered those rules he stuck to them with an earnestness that awed his contemporaries.

For her part Weisberg sees advice columns as a woman’s world, a place where women go to feel that theirs are not the only messy lives.

She seems happy to see that Cheryl Strayed is giving less advice and more empathy. After all, this is what the therapy culture prescribes.

But, Weisberg also suggests that this is what feminism hath wrought. Here, something interesting happens.

In her words:

The advice columnist emerged as a figure who wrote mainly for female audiences and encouraged propriety, manners, and practicality. But the emergence of feminism made the questions, and the answers, more complicated. Women stopped thinking about how they should do something—cook a meal, prepare for a holiday—and started considering why they did so at all. Columnists became the arbitrary authors of social rules, helping readers decide what was required of them. People once consulted advice columns when they wanted a broad, seemingly omniscient perspective, when they wanted to break out of their small network and take comfort in the notion that their problems were universal.

Thanks to feminism, she says, women have learned how to think critically.

Of course, critical thinking will damage any relationship that you have. It is bad for romance and bad for friendship and bad on the job.

It’s interesting to see a feminist showing how feminism makes people dysfunctional.

If you do not know how to do anything or do not care about the best way to do what you need to do, then the only thing you will be offering to a relationship is raw emotion.

If that’s all there is, the emotion will soon turn negative.

Moreover, there is a word for women, and for men, who do not want to know how to do what they have to do. That word is: ineffectual.

Wherever a woman is, on the job or in the home, if she does not know how to take advice, if she insists on doing things her own way, she is going to make a mess. If she imagines that the world should shower her with non-judgmental empathy, she will never improve her performance. She will become ineffectual, to the point of being dysfunctional.

Woman cannot live on empathy alone. 

Feminists insist that women must have careers outside of the home. Then they advise these same women to reject advice. Thereby, they are setting women up for failure.

Score another point for feminism.

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