Our culture is obsessed with advice: how to exercise, how to eat, how to hustle, how to relax. The listicle-rich realm of online media is cacophonous with attention-grabbing gabbing that’s glorified as guidance, and it pelts us perpetually with its tokens of “wisdom.” Social media, meanwhile, is a mecca of motivational mantras, piled on top of one another in heaps of contradictions. Just do it — but just be! Lean in — but let it go!
To integrate all of the instructions into everyday life would be a preposterous task, if not entirely impossible, as this piece by Sara Kloek so aptly illuminates. If you try to collect every shiny “wisdom” token, you’ll collapse under the weight. And you’ll find, too, that few are solid gold; more are plastic, spray-painted silver.
But the real problem with this obsessive offering of answers to life’s tough questions isn’t just the overload. It’s not just the confusion, or the inauthenticity, or even the inaccuracy.
It’s the strain it puts on everyone’s self-worth.
When you can’t seem to adhere to the advice, to do what you’re supposed to do if you want to be happy and healthy and successful and loved, you feel like something is wrong with you.
But sometimes, Nike be damned, you JUST CAN’T DO IT. You might be tired or distracted or scared. You might not be ready yet.
Sometimes, you might do the exact opposite of the “right thing.” Sometimes that “right thing” is forgiving yourself for doing the “wrong thing,” and somehow, you can’t even seem to do THAT.
Life gets harder, not easier, when you let too many other people tell you how to live it. A yearning for insight makes you vulnerable to taking too many stories as truth, instead of carefully selecting the ones that really resonate with who you are and what you need.
The world’s original historian was named Herodotus. In the fifth century BC, he was the first to systematically collect the records of past events — specifically, the Greco-Persian Wars — and arrange them into an organized narrative, probing for explanations of the battles’ origins and lessons for future generations.
Some of Herodotus’ tales were factual, while some of them were fanciful. Some of them were accurate, while others were inaccurate. But he insisted that he was only reporting what had been told to him and what he believed to be true.
That’s the purpose that all stories serve: they’re a search for truth. That’s why we have fairytales, why we have gossip, why we have social media. That’s why we have listicles about the 20 things that all 20-somethings should know and the 13 top career tips and the 17 foods you should never eat in a million years if you don’t want to balloon to the size of a personal planet. Even as we invent and exaggerate with preposterous dramatics, we’re just co-writing our human histories.
The morals are never explicit aspects of reality. They’re the tokens we dig up from the shaped and shifted stories that we tell ourselves, making meaning from the mess.
I don’t have a degree in Advanced Advice-Giving, though I did grow up with two psychologists as parents. I don’t have official authority or credentials to substantiate the guidance that I offer in my writing. I don’t even have enough years of adulthood under my belt to warrant the honor of the word “wise.”
What I do have, though, are stories. What I have are the scars from stuff I’ve been through; the raw wounds from what I’m going through now; the war tales lending lessons about how to be a human, according to me.
My mess is my material. My scraps of screw-ups are where I go digging for tokens of truth, buried like shiny gold coins in heaps of spray-painted plastic.
But I don’t want to pelt you with more aimless wisdom to weigh down your pockets. I want you to collect and keep only the tales that ring true for you.
And I want you to know, too, that I sometimes struggle to take my own advice. Sometimes, I JUST CAN’T DO IT. I might be tired or distracted or scared. I might not be ready yet.
I don’t always practice what I preach. I just practice, and then I preach. And then I practice again. I go on learning how to live my life in my own best way.
If there’s one wise piece of guidance that applies to every single human, it’s this:
Please, breathe. That’s a bit of advice that you absolutely can’t fail to follow.
If you’re breathing, you’re still a human being — you’re still a human, being — which means that you, too, are still learning the lifelong lesson of how to exist. Every mishap adds a moral to your long chain of stories, like a gold bead strung onto an ever-growing necklace.
I hope you wear that necklace proudly, because your storyline is an inspiring one. Your dedication to existence is inspiring.
The archaic origin of the word “inspire,” by the way, is “breathe.”