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Dr. Mardy's Quotes of the Week
October 22—28, 2023 | THIS WEEK'S THEME: “Advice”
Opening Line of the Week
The opening words come from narrator Nick Carraway, a 29-year-old bond salesman who grew up in the Midwest, graduated from Yale University, served as an infantryman in WWI, and has recently rented a bungalow in the Long Island town of West Egg (the house sits in the middle of a heavily-wooded property adjacent to a much larger property owned by a mysterious millionaire named Jay Gatsby). The first sentence immediately makes us wonder about the nature of the paternal advice Carraway received—and he provides a quick answer:
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
The novel’s opening words enjoy a legendary status among literature lovers. Here’s what Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” said about them in So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures (2014):
“That little speech should clue us in on how much breeding is going to count in this novel—as well as on just how slippery the meaning of The Great Gatsby is going to be. Indeed, the thick ambiguity of Gatsby’s language is one of the reasons why, despite its scant number of pages, it reads like a much longer story. Are we supposed to think that Nick is a prig for introducing his pedigree to us? Are we supposed to give him points for being aware of his own class privileges and acknowledging his social empathy? Whatever impression Nick wants to make, the novel has opened by trumpeting its obsessive subject: class. We might as well be in the turn-of-the-century New York City of Edith Wharton.”
This Week’s Puzzler
On October 25, 1941, this acclaimed American writer was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (she celebrates her 82nd birthday this week). One of America’s most acclaimed living writers, her 1988 novel Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1989 (two earlier novels were finalists for the award, and I’ll reveal them below). Two of her later novels—A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) and Redhead by the Side of the Road (2020)—were longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
When she was awarded the 2012 Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence—a prestigious lifetime achievement award—a spokesman for the newspaper wrote: “I can think of no modern English-language author who more deserves to be [honored]. The apparent effortlessness of her prose is matched by her empathy for her characters, the depth of her human understanding, and the consistency of her literary vision. Readers the world over treasure [her] for the profound way she seems to peer into their hearts.”
The oldest of four children born to devout Quaker parents (a social worker who married a chemist), she spent her first eleven years in rustic and highly insulated Quaker communities in the Midwest and South. Her early world contained no modern conveniences, and her primary activity after doing chores was reading (she once said she read Little Women twenty-two times).
When her family moved to Raleigh, North Carolina in 1952, she had never watched television, used a telephone, or experienced much of modern life. Although she felt like a complete outsider in the public school system, she was years ahead of her peers, graduating from high school at age sixteen, and then from Duke University at nineteen. While a number of high school teachers and college professors urged her to consider a writing career, she majored in Russian at Duke.
A few years after her 1961 graduation, she wrote two premature novels she later said she “would like to burn” (my view is that she produced them to please her teachers, and not out of a genuine desire to write). Several years elapsed before, approaching age 30, she finally “found her voice” and came out with A Slipping-Down Life (1970). From then on, she began producing novels that pleased herself as well as millions of readers around the world.
Once described as “the Greta Garbo of the literary world,” this week’s Mystery Woman does not do book tours and, until recently, rarely agreed to be interviewed (she once said that they always ended up making her feel bad the next morning). Routinely described as “a writer’s writer,” her fans include Jodi Picoult, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike, who once wrote that she “is not merely good, she is wickedly good.”
A good example of her wickedly good writing appears below:
Who is this person? (Answer below)
What Role Has Advice Played in Your Life?
The American Heritage Dictionary defines advice this way: “Opinion about what could or should be done about a situation or problem; counsel.” It’s a clean and simple definition of a highly complex topic, and the clever observation in this week’s Puzzler describes one important facet: how much people love to dispense advice to those they love. Erma Bombeck explored the same territory a few years back when she wrote:
“When your mother asks, ‘Do you want a piece of advice?’ it’s a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.”
Few subjects are more interesting than advice, in large part because of the many fascinating ways it plays out in human life. To cite just a few examples, (1) people ask for advice even when they don’t really want it; (2) people give advice even when it’s unsought and undesired; (3) people reject good advice even when it would be of great benefit to them; and (4) people readily accept bad advice because it comports with their predilections or worst instincts. For all of these reasons, and many more, the subject has been explored since the dawn of civilization—and it interesting to note that many of the earliest observations were cautionary in nature:
In my own life, advice has played a significant, even pivotal role. Some of the best decisions I've ever made—and, to be honest, some of the worst—came from heeding the advice of people I trusted and respected. When I think back to the exact moments when those various pieces of advice were being offered, it was impossible to know at the time whether I was receiving good counsel, or bad. And, the more I think about it, I have to admit that some of the worst advice I ever received seemed pretty good when it was first proffered.
With regard to this last point, it is often true that the people least qualified to give advice are the most highly motivated to dispense it. I don’t know how often it’s happened in your life, but I can’t tell you how many times I found myself on the receiving end of advice from people whose own lives were not exactly the most exemplary. And, building on this thought, the bad advice I was getting was often delivered with great fervency. It was almost as if my so-called friends were trying to prove themselves right by suggesting I make the same questionable choices they had made.
Over the years, there have been so many problems associated with advice-giving that some clever wags have oxymoronically advised that we should shun it altogether:
Regarding the giving of advice, many wise words have been written on the subject, but few can improve on some words penned—quite literally—by George Washington in the 1740s:
“Give not Advice without being Ask’d, & when desired, do it briefly.”
The first point here is critical, and, if heeded, would completely eliminate one of the great irritants of human existence: unsolicited advice (once described by Bern Williams as “the junk mail of life”). The second, while less critical, is also hugely significant, echoing the wisdom of the old saying that a word—not many words—to the wise is sufficient.
Parenthetically, the Give not Advice saying above should properly be attributed to “Author Unknown.” When young George was in his early teens, he completed a penmanship exercise in which he hand-copied 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” The list was originally prepared around 1595 by French Jesuits for use in the education of young aristocrats. The Rules of Civility, as they came to be known, found their way to England in 1640, then to America in the early 1700s, and ultimately into the hands of Washington’s schoolmaster.
Let me bring my remarks to a close by mentioning one very important way in which you could improve on the famous advice from Rules of Civility: let your efforts be guided by what I call “The L1-T2 Principle” (for listen first, talk second).
The next time someone asks you for advice, say, “I’d be happy to oblige, but before I do, I’d love to hear what you’ve already thought about the subject.” If you’d like, you can also add, “Over the years, I’ve discovered that I give much better advice when I know what the problem is, what people have already thought about it, and any other important matters that should be considered.” Then, just listen. To be more precise, don’t just listen, but listen in such a way that it plumbs the depths of the person’s thinking. I call it deep listening, and it’s a topic I’ll be exploring in a future issue.
When you’re able to listen in this way to a person who’s asked you for advice, three predictable things are likely to occur. First, the person will greatly appreciate your sensitivity as well as your friendship. Ralph Waldo Emerson was thinking along these lines when he once said, “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud.”
Second, in the presence of a skilled listener, people who ask for advice will generally talk expansively about the problem—and in so doing, they may identify a number of helpful solutions on their own. It is an axiom of psychology that people are more likely to embrace an idea if they regard it as their own, and you can use this principle to your advantage. When it comes time for you to talk, instead of offering “advice,” you can simply support any ideas the person has already mentioned.
Third, and finally, when you truly listen to other people, their level of receptivity to what you have to say dramatically increases. I believe this is what Dean Rusk had in mind when he once said, “One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears—by listening to them.”
Okay, that’s it for this week! Thanks for your patience. Now take a few moments to think about the role advice has played in your life. As you do, here are a number of additional observations to stimulate your thinking:
He that gives good advice builds with one hand. He that gives good counsel and example builds with both. But he that gives good admonition and bad example builds with one hand and pulls down with the other. — Francis Bacon
Most of the advice we receive from others is not so much an evidence of their affection for us, as it is an evidence of their affection for themselves. — Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw)
The brain may take advice, but not the heart. — Truman Capote
I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes. — Gene Fowler
Never take the advice of someone who has not had your kind of trouble. — Sydney J. Harris
Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t. — Erica Jong
I am very handy with my advice and then when anybody appears to be following it, I get frantic. — Flannery O’Connor
The true secret of giving advice is, after you have honestly given it, to be perfectly indifferent whether it is taken or not, and never persist in trying to set people right. — Hannah Whitall Smith
It’s queer how ready people always are with advice . . . and no matter how many times experience has shown them to be wrong, they continue to set forth their opinions, as if they had received them from the Almighty. — Anne Sullivan
Advice is one of those things it is far more blessed to give than to receive. — Carolyn Wells
For source information on these quotations, and many others on the topic of ADVICE, go to Dr. Mardy's Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations.
Cartoon of the Week
Answer to This Week’s Puzzler:
Tyler’s two other Pulitzer-nominated novels were Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) and The Accidental Tourist (1985). And here are several more of her wicked good quotations:
Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.
I read so I can live more than one life in more than one place.
People always call it luck when you’ve acted more sensibly than they have.
I suspect that marriage is like parenthood: every last one of us is an amateur at it.
Dr. Mardy’s Observation of the Week
Thanks for joining me again this week. See you next Sunday morning, when the theme will be “Kindness.”
Regarding My Lifelong Love of Quotations: A Personal Note
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