Advice is a paradoxical thing. We all have more than enough to give and yet never enough to quench our thirst. For generations and generations, our ancestors have refined the dark coals of trial and tribulation into pocket-sized crystals of collective wisdom, i.e. catchy little proverbial memes that continue to guide us. In this picture, we are said to ‘follow’ advice, as if the words hang before us like sparkly little tour guides. Given that words do nothing of the sort, in a literal sense, I started to wonder: what is it that we are actually doing when we ‘follow’ advice? So I began to trace the map of major historical wisesayings to see exactly where they lead us, and to my surprise, I found that many of them are either nonsensical or down right paradoxical! It appears that much of collective wisdom leads us both everywhere and nowhere, at the same time, and that this may ultimately be the point. Here are some examples.
Anything is possible. Anything? Does this mean it is possible for this advice to be incorrect? I’d like to keep this in mind as we examine the other tangled tidbits.
Forgive and Forget. A cherished classic. Let’s see if it holds up. The first part makes sense. Forgiveness is good. The second part, not so much. Taking this literally means that I am supposed to forgive and then completely forget what happened. This is a recipe for a disaster! Let’s a run a scenario. Johnny steals one of my garden gnomes. Being the stoic that I am, I forgive Johnny and completely forget that he stole my gnome. Johnny, being a clever witted racoon thief, notices this trend and proceeds to steal all fifty of my garden gnomes. Bah! Thankfully I keep my favorite gnome under my bed for good luck.
Applying this advice literally is bound to leave you lost, senile, and royally duped! I guess this would require us to forgive the people who gave us this advice in the first place, thereby requiring us to forget the advice itself!? The advice eats its own tail, so to speak. Deliciously absurd.
Never say never. Never. Never you say!? This advice is like the first rule of fight club: do not talk about fight club. Stating this rule requires breaking it! Never say never says never twice! C’mon.
The grass is always greener. Oooo I love this one. A real heart-warmer. The universal antidote to everyday dreamers. Fortunately, if you are aspiring toward bigger and better things, never fear! This advice can take you anywhere, literally.
Let’s start with always. Always means forever, permanent, a universal fact. Bold move. So it is always greener on the other side. Interesting – so we have a universal applied to a relative term: other. As soon as I hop over the fence, the side where I was before becomes the ‘other’ side. Following this logic means that whenever I go over to the greener side, the other side where I was before becomes greener. But greener is unidirectional. If X is greener than Y, Y cannot be greener than X. The only way for this advice to logically make sense is if relative sides constantly get greener into infinity, resulting in platonic existential heat death. I built a simple agent-based model to provide a visual simulation of what I mean here.
Don’t let the cat out of the bag. First of all, who the hell is putting cats in bags? To even meet the necessary prerequisites for this advice, I need to commit a horrendous crime. Even worse. this advice tells me to keep the cat in the bag. What this leads to is a terrifying stench and a court case. Something tells me this advice won’t be any help at all.
Take it with a grain of salt. This one sounds really sensible to me to be honest, so I decided to literally put it into action. I found it challenging to know when I should take something with a grain of salt. I assumed that one is supposed to do so when someone says something incomplete, annoying, or offensive. This required a lot of salt. So following this advice, I did what seemed natural. Anytime someone said something of the appropriate character, I pulled out a little sack of salt, rubbed a bit between my fingers and began to chant. It was amazing! Suddenly the people saying annoying things were no longer interested in talking to me.
Treat others as you want to be treated. Alright, golden rule, let’s see what you’ve got. For starters, you are incredibly generous – of course you are 😉 You’re saying that I can treat others however I want to be treated. Nice. I get to choose how I treat others so long as I’m OK with others treating me that way. I hereby decree that I will give massages to others perpetually, on the condition that everyone gives everyone else, including me, a perpetual massage in return. If you loosen the bolts on Kant’s categorical imperative, you arrive at real solutions. Who can deny that the world would a better place if we all joined in an endless massage train. Seriously.
All good things must come to an end and save the best for last. Together these two gems are a force to be reckoned with. I thought it was appropriate to place them at the end, to give their paradoxical qualities an emergent meaning via their role in the larger structure, ya kna?
So all good things must come to an end. It follows that the end is a part of the good thing, or at least this is what its tag-team partner suggests: we should save the best for last. In this view, the best thing comes at the end! Following the logic, does this mean that the end is a good thing? If so, then as a good thing it must also come to an end. So the end is not the end, as it is still coming to an end. Now here’s the kicker. All things that come to an end must also have a beginning. Does this mean that since the end comes to an end, it also has a beginning? From here, we can deduce the final corollary: the end is both a beginning and an end. Just when you thought we were ending, alas a new beginning is born! And this time, I think I have truly saved the best for last.
Every end is a new beginning. Thankfully, T.S. Eliot has already done my work for me. In his poem, the East Coker, he begins with the following line: In my beginning is my end. Then, two-hundred some odd lines later, he ends with this quipper: In my end is my beginning. What lies between, according to Eliot? Well, in a way we’ve been getting there all along, without even intending to. I’ll give Eliot the final – or rather the first? – words:
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
When we tie all of this advice together, we see how a lot of commonsense is like a map without a legend or a compass, and without fixed names for roads or places. This may compel one to believe that cliché advice leads us nowhere and is therefore not advice at all. But I’d like to propose that this is the very nature of advice. Consider the advice that Lewis Carroll’s cat provides to Alice as she begins her journey:
The paradoxical thing about advice is that, though it often provides no clear directions, it still helps us get to where we want to go, even when the destination is nowhere. Indeed, some of the wisest thinkers in history choose to deliver their ultimate advice on life in poetic and paradoxical terms. Consider Einstein’s observation that “Life is a preparation for the future; and the best preparation for the future is to live as if there were none.” When we give and take advice about life, we are forced to leave things open-ended, because no one is able to foretell the future. Advice is paradoxical because life is paradoxical. We want to know the best thing to do, but at the same time, we’d rather not spoil the surprise. We want to life live and carve our own path, informed by, but not determined by, the advice of others. So inspired, I’d like to leave you all with a little advice I’ve gained along these meanderings, and forgive me – or perhaps pity me – for its incoherence, as it’s one of the clearest thoughts I’ve ever had. My advice is do not follow advice – or at least not literally. But please do continue to give and take it.
If anymore examples come to mind, please do share below!