The Sweet Spot: The Art of Giving Advice (and Saying Goodbye)

The sweet Spot

The Art of Giving Advice (and Saying Goodbye)

In their final column, the Dear Sugars offer insight and advice on … giving it.

CreditCreditHeidi Younger

Cheryl Strayed: Dear readers, we have news: This will be the final Sweet Spot column. Steve and I have felt deeply privileged to answer letters from those of you who sought our advice here, but after much reflection we have decided that it’s time to shift our focus to other creative endeavors — namely, our next books. Our goodbye is not without misgiving. We’ll miss the weekly challenge of helping you navigate your emotional quagmires and deepest conflicts. But we’ve addressed so many aspects of the human condition over the course of writing this column and making the Dear Sugars podcast that, should you seek our perspective on any number of conundrums, you’ll surely find an answer in our archives.

Steve Almond: As we say farewell, it’s worth looking back at how this strange and beautiful partnership began. A decade ago, I launched the advice column Dear Sugar, for the website The Rumpus, as something of a lark. The design flaw in most advice columns, I felt, was that their authors took themselves too seriously. They pretended to have all the answers, when the more honest responses to human suffering are concern and doubt.

I still believe that. But the moment my friend Cheryl took over the column, I realized the flaw in my approach, which is that people write to advice columnists because they want to be taken seriously. They want permission to feel what they’re feeling, not a set of instructions for self-improvement. They want someone to bear witness to their struggle, to stand with them through it. Cheryl did this by sharing stories from her own life. She provided a model of how she found meaning within the chaos and hardship of her own past. And because she did so with such sensitivity and eloquence, thousands of people sought her counsel.

In our work together on the Dear Sugars podcast, and for this column, we’ve sought to invert the standard paradigm of advice givers. We don’t pretend that we can supply the answers to the crises set out by our correspondents. What we try to do is to focus on asking the right questions, often about the unacknowledged internal conflicts that keep people locked in self-destructive cycles. In many of the letters we read, the writers already know what they need to do. What they’re looking for is permission to act on that knowledge, and sometimes a compassionate nudge.

Read all the Sweet Spot columns right here.

CS: And perhaps a bit of reassurance too. I think the most essential advice Steve and I have given is the simple consolation that it’s going to be O.K., even if it’s hard right now. One childhood memory that has never left me is the way it felt when my mother stroked my forehead when I was sick with a fever — that deep sense of comfort amid the misery. I think we all long for that, to be soothed when we’re suffering, to have others bear witness to our struggles, to be told we have the strength and the courage to push through. That’s what I aspire to offer those who seek my advice. It’s easy to assume that people write to strangers when they’re bewildered — and there is some of that — but far more often people write to us when deep down they already know what they should do. Our job is to say they can, they will and they must, though it won’t be easy.

It’s often scary to admit we know what we need to do because setting a course of action based on that knowledge can push us outside of our comfort zones. Sometimes it’s that we need to hurt someone’s feelings by ending a relationship, or make ourselves vulnerable by taking a risk, or endure the discomfort of a conflict or a confession, or let go of an idea we used to have about who we are so we can replace it with a truer one. We often resist doing those things because they’re difficult and painful, but over and over again, in response to a wide range of questions, Steve and I have landed upon one value: To live a content and evolved life, you must trust your clarity and act upon it. Again and again we’ve said it’s not only O.K. to listen to the deepest voice within us that knows — it’s essential. In the long run you’ll be miserable if you don’t.

SA: That’s easy for us to say, and much harder to put into practice. Too often, especially in moments of crisis, we can’t find clarity. We distrust ourselves. We engineer situations that allow us to remain loyal to the sorrows of our childhood. That, too, is a part of the human arrangement. People resist change. They have trouble forgiving themselves and forgiving those around them. Cheryl and I are under no illusion that a few kind and considered words can undo patterns years in the making. This is why we so often advise people to seek out support groups, therapists and hotlines. The gravest danger to the wounded heart is an isolating silence.

We also recommend that people look to literature for solace and guidance, which is what we always do in times of tribulation. As Cheryl intuited long ago, people learn more from stories than lectures, because stories are how we pluck meaning from the rush of experience. The letters we receive — in which people tell their own stories — are themselves healing documents. It has been a profound honor to read them. It takes courage to examine the inner life and to ask for help. It’s also been an honor, and a pure joy, to work with Cheryl, to be in conversation with such a brilliant mind and an intrepid heart. Most of what I know about giving advice, I’ve learned from her. I’ll miss working with you, my friend.

CS: I suppose I can’t have expected I’d make it through this final column without crying, so thank you for that, Steve. I was honored when you asked me to take over the Dear Sugar column all those years ago because I’d long been a fan of your writing. But my admiration and love for you has only grown as we’ve worked together writing this column and making the Dear Sugars podcast. I’m in awe of your deep intelligence and compassion. And even though this is our last column, I’ll forever be seeking your advice.

As for you, dear readers (and listeners), I know I’m speaking for both of us when I say how grateful we are that you shared your stories, your secrets and your struggles with us. We learned a lot from you. By way of helping you ponder your problems, we’ve been inevitably required to grapple with our a few of our own. Steve and I are often asked if it’s emotionally burdensome to be on the receiving end of so much despair and sorrow, but we’ve found the opposite to be true. To offer words of consolation, encouragement and (we hope) illumination is to do something that brings comfort, even when we can’t provide the cure. It’s cool hands on hot foreheads. Love in action. Our mothers would be proud.


Published at Tue, 25 Dec 2018 10:00:02 +0000