Michelle Martin

What would you do?

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

I’m a little bit of an advice column junkie.

I read advice columns in the paper, in magazines, online. Most are general, but I’ve read columns that cover plenty of specific topics, on everything from work life and parenting to cars and real estate, which I’m not even all that interested in.

And sure, I learn things from them, sometimes things that are even useful. But more often, I read with an attitude of incredulity at the situations the people seeking advice have found themselves in. Or, let’s be honest, most often the situations they have gotten themselves into.

Sometimes they spark breakfast-table discussion with my husband: What would you do if this happened to you?

Most often, he talks about how he wouldn’t have let whatever the problem is go so far. But sometimes he says, “I wouldn’t write to an advice columnist about it.”

Because by writing to an advice column, people are allowing their problems to be turned into entertainment for everyone else. And who wants that?

I’m not always so sure. Sometimes I think the glimpses I get into other, anonymous, lives are valuable, whether by showing me some part of the human condition I had never considered or making me think differently about something going on in my own life.

For the people who write in, I suppose the columns offer a way to get a different perspective on a problem without the baggage of having friends or family know about it.

But, if I’m honest, most often I’m reading and saying to myself, “Somebody really did that?” Either about the writer, or the person they are writing about.

What does that eagerness to judge say about me? Nothing good, I’m sure.

We’ve all read, “Judge not, lest you be judged” (Mt 7:1). Just to drive the point home, Jesus calls those who point out the flaws of others without recognizing their own flaws hypocrites just a few verses later.

Judging anonymous strangers who publicly ask for advice does feel like it’s better than judging the people I encounter, even tangentially, in my everyday life: the driver who cuts me off, the server who gets my order wrong, the doctor who needs to be reminded which patient I am.

In those situations, I’m pretty good at seeing at least the possibility of extenuating circumstances. That driver who cut me off? Maybe they’re new to driving and just made a mistake, or are unfamiliar with their route and found themselves in the wrong lane. Maybe the server has too many tables and not enough help, or maybe they didn’t hear my order correctly because I didn’t speak clearly enough in a noisy environment. Maybe the doctor has five patients with my name (yes, it’s happened) and their office staff pulled the wrong file.

Can I transfer a spirit of generosity to my readings of advice columns?

All I can say is I can try. Maybe if I can’t figure it out, I can write to an advice column.


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