The Chronic Expert and Advice-Giver
“My ten year-old spends too much time on computer games.”
“Well, what you need to do is to ration his time. If he goes over the limit, you reduce the appropriate time on his next session. That’s what I do.”
Now, keep in mind, this might be the advice of your best friend, someone you have known for most of your adult life. You want to keep the friendship, but you know that your friend loves to give advice, to seep into the quagmires of your marital problems, to find just the right herb or vitamin for your rash, to come up with “just the recipe” for your Thanksgiving dinner.
You tolerate your friend’s obnoxious need to give advice and to find solutions because it would be too difficult to disentangle your relationship with her. And she probably has some other “wonderful qualities” that you just can’t think of when she’s in the middle of being your friendly Cassandra. (Advice-giving friends, I have found, seem to know all, and I mean all the toxic effects of the most commonly used antibiotics.)
Aside from the close friend or relative who is the chronic expert on everything, there are the public experts I see every day. I am retired and have lots of free “observation time” and often wander around local coffee-houses and book stores.
I don’t know why advice-givers often seem to hang out in coffee houses. These coffee-house Solomons and oracles are often bent over a newspaper crossword puzzle, a finely-sharped pencil poised ever-so-precariously between their index finger and thumb. Erasers, of course, are de rigeur because they annihilate into oblivion the brief moment of forgetfulness, the slight immersion into imperfection that the factual-experts-par excellence allow themselves; after all, who wants to spend time fretting about a blip of a short-lived mistake when the guillotine victory of the final “correct answer” is all that matters.
In the many conversations and interactions I have had with coffee-house experts and public advice-givers, I have come to realize that, more often than not, they are partial to non-fiction, documentaries, Jeapardy, the History channel, CNN, and a host of Web sites loaded with charts, graphs, statistics, and percentages. I have also noticed that they seem to love books with lots of headings and chapter titles. (I have often wanted to tell my expert-fact-driven friends that they should start reading more fiction and poetry, by the way.)
The chronic expert, the constant advice-giver. What is that all about?
Advice-givers and experts seem to have a need for order in their lives. They appear to need some kind of cerebral filing system that places all of reality into neatly arranged mental drawers—herbs in one file, recipes, statistics, dates, percentages, middle names of dead relatives, capitals of countries, bank account numbers, in other files.
If they are historians, experts love to have their favorites files of dates, chronology tables, and lists of causes, characteristics, and effects of every event in history from the Renaissance, to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and, my favorite, the fall of the Roman Empire. (I’m not sure why the “fall of Rome” continues to resonate more dramatically in my memory than the causes of the empire’s “rise.”)
In any event, my notion of being an expert in history, from my university days, was totally about facts, dates, causes, effects—all arranged very neatly in columns. From those brief and often vacuous treks into history by chronological tables, I could have easily descended into the delusional notion that all of reality can be easily arranged in neat little columns, charts, and navigational maps.
Order. Files. Columns. Charts. Facts. Correct answers. These seem to be the many and somewhat unvaried resources of the expert. And, if you have noticed, they are sources that view reality as turtle-shell hard, objective, something to be acquired, better still, mastered.
Experts often have difficulty surrendering to realities that don’t fit. And they are sometimes puzzled, if not amused, by doubt, uncertainty, and extreme emotional responses. Out-of-control reactions, after all, are far too irrational and frantic to the expert who needs the undisturbed space of an objective, out-there world of what needs to be known and mastered.
So what are we to do surrounded by so many experts and advice-givers?
I belong to a support group that consistently talks about cleaning up our own side of the street. On my side of that street, I know I suffer from the need to be an expert on any given day. As a freelance writer, I like to “gather” in information, to find the flash-bulb anecdote, the quick example. And I border on the edge of the neurotic in my quest to say everything right, all the time.
What protects me from being deadened by the technical aspects of writing, however, is that I constantly try to connect to the human, to avoid the heavy abstractions that wallow in muddy dullness. No matter how heavy the topic, I find release in my writing when I allow the human anecdote, the fleshed-out example to enter the narrative. And I also know that if I try to hard to get “it” right, whatever “it” is in my writing, I too often stumble over my own insecurities.
In other aspects of my life, I know that when I surrender to the unknown, when I keep myself open to somebody else’s observations, when I open my heart to a friend’s loss, when I “soften” my approach to what I consider a “professional” issue, I am less likely to be rigid about what I believe is the correct answer. Correctness, is after all, only one piece of of this puzzle we call life.
The other insight I have discovered about my own need for “correct” information, is to actually listen to myself when I am sharing my alleged expertise. If I find myself taking on the role of a “talking machine,” just spewing out data, references, even insights, I try to pull back, to mentally say to myself, “Okay, John, there’s another person in front of you. This isn’t just about you. There’s a relationship here.”
Correctness, expertise, the right answer are all content-driven. And content has no life apart from the dynamic of listener and speaker.
Once I know that all my communication has the human dimension of a dynamic, that there is a real, live, flesh-and-blood person I am communicating with, it diminishes, even softens my frantic need to get the facts right, to be correct, to be the expert.
If you can identify with this blog, please share your thoughts. Namasté.