Peace of Advice
Someone asked me yesterday, “What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?” And I was a little stumped. I thought about parents. I thought about teachers. I thought about close friends. But nothing came. There wasn’t a clear winner. Rev. Bray McNatt shared one of my favorite pieces of advice from Maya Angelou a few weeks ago during a sermon. “When someone shows you who they are, believe them…the first time.” I added the ellipsis to this sentence for my own way of thinking about it. But even with all the pain this advice can save people, is it the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten?
In truth, when the question was asked, a part of me bristled. A part of me heard the question as asking about the best piece of unsolicited advice. This is the kind that a senior detective in a murder mystery police procedural might give to her young, dim, but well-meaning junior detective after he ruins her crime scene or botches an interview with a suspect. “Hey, let me give you a piece of advice.” No one particularly cares for that kind of advice. And I don’t think it’s what my friend was asking about. It’s the advice we ask for. Or it’s the advice offered by one we trust to offer it that probably means the most to us.
I was having breakfast with a theater critic years ago. I asked him what is the best advice he can give to actors just starting out in theater—maybe something about professionalism, being on time, sending thank you notes. But he did not miss a beat. He said, “Marry the right person.” He could see I was a little stunned. “I have seen bad matches wreck the lives of artists, emotionally and financially. It’s a tragedy.”
Of course, I’m sure we can rely on a professional in the theater to be a little dramatic. But it worked. Roughly twenty years later I remember that conversation and the diner where we sat in midtown Manhattan. The surprise of the answer is part of why it stayed. But more than the incongruous surprise, the identity of the one who offered it made it memorable. Someone I thought of in one way or whose identity I only knew professionally shared advice that showed me he was more whole, complete, and integrated than I imagined.
See, good advice isn’t always about whether it’s right. I don’t even think good advice is always about the words that are spoken. But I do think that good advice should offer a glimpse of the full person who offers it, not just one dimension of that person. I still don’t know what the best piece of advice anyone has ever given me might be. And advice might work its way through diners, dashboards, or drama critics. But I do know that almost any advice I’ve bothered to remember calls on me to practice honesty and to cultivate love for those who receive it well and with the honor it deserves.
And may it always be so.
Rev. T. J.