Written for lovers of literature interested in self-actualization, Literature: How to Read and Understand the World teaches readers how to derive principles of wisdom from literature and apply them to their lives. The book achieves this through a series of five essential steps, including identifying with literary characters, aggregating principles of wisdom from their experience, and applying those principles to readers’ lives. Along the way, the author reveals his own transformation through this process. Literature: How to Read and Understand the World will help you to enrich your life and world!
Over the next several months, I will be releasing excerpts from the book along with questions to keep readers thinking after reading the posts. If you are intrigued by what you read, please share with a friend!
Sharing wisdom is risky business, as it creates the grounds for us to tell our friends and other relations things they aren’t ready to hear, or to project our own stories onto their situations and in so doing tell them things we really mean to tell ourselves; doing either of these things, we are liable to damage our relationships. Luckily, there is a system that increases the likelihood that this type of sharing will succeed, one I try to follow at all times. Following are five Guidelines for the Practical Sharing of Wisdom, ones which span the situation in which a relation has not asked for our advice, but we nevertheless long to give it; to that in which we feel anxious about whether or not our friend will uphold the advice we have given:
- The most important rule: do not offer advice without being invited. In our process of reading literature, this would be akin to shouting at a character like Tom Sawyer to grow up already, to see that his games are doing nothing but worsening Jim’s situation. In this declamation, we would fail to respect the situation which Tom is actually in, which includes his childhood need for fantasy; as such, we would offer a solution which would not actually fit the tenets of the situation. In our physical lives as much as in literature, this advice would be followed half-heartedly if at all, and likely we would achieve nothing but frazzling ourselves and the people with whom we speak.
- Instead of offer advice when we have not been invited, identify: in our process of reading literature, this maps onto the initial step of Engaged Reading, in which we seek to nonjudgmentally familiarize ourselves with the characters’ situation. In our physical lives as much as in literature, people may have no idea we’re doing this: identification is something that takes place in our inner domains, a sacred act and itself an offering of love. Through identifying with the people to whom we would offer advice, we may find that we release something in ourselves and, accordingly, become able to let the situation go, no longer holding out for our friends to see the error of their ways. In other words, we may learn that our desire to fix their situation actually had to do with something in ourselves—not the situation at all.
- Once we have been invited to share advice, we can first continue the previous step, and identify. I say this because at first, there may be the impulse to share what we have been waiting to tell the person all along: we may feel we have been sitting on gold and that we finally have the opportunity to unveil it. However, doing this will only close the door which has been preciously opened to us, so it’s better to make the very same step with which we began our character identifications: find the heart of the feeling in which our friends are resting. We can do this through questions and rephrasings, such as “Am I hearing correctly that you’re feeling sad about the situation?,” or “It seems like you’re feeling worried; is that true?” Knowing our earnest intent to understand their feelings, our friend or relation will be glad to assist with clarification.
From here, we can then follow the remainder of the steps in Character Identification, helping our friend to see a) how they’re feeling, b) the behaviors those feelings are inspiring, c) what they don’t know about themselves, and d) how things could be different, if they knew or integrated this knowledge. Here as in Character Identification, the key is to remember that we are not imposing anything: any knowledge revealed already lies within our friend’s or relation’s heart, and our only job is to illuminate it. In this role, we are more like paleontologists than we are like therapists; we are excavators of the stories in which our friends already live, helping them to trace out those stories’ conclusions.
- While the above is the only necessary contribution to make in an exchange like this, there are two Guidelines we can appeal to if directly asked for advice:
- Speak in the first-person and present tense, as in Psychic Mapping. Here, we relay our advice in terms of our own lives, thus freeing our friends to take only the advice they consider appropriate. For example, when my friend shared about the situation in which he doubted he could meet his girlfriend’s request for an open relationship, I could have shared that I myself wouldn’t be able to meet this request. By further introducing this contention with a qualifying phrase like, “Now, this is only my feeling, but,” I would have clarified that the information to come was only pertinent to my journey, thereby loosening my friend’s identification with it as entirely his prerogative. Sharing advice in terms of our own journey thus provides mutual freedom and dignity to those who listen to it, much as our Psychic Mapping and Executive Summaries serve to release literary characters as having successfully transferred their wisdom.
- If you’re ever unsure about whether you’ve been asked for advice, simply inquire: there is no harm to be done in pausing the conversation to verify that sharing would be appropriate. For instance, you might say something like the following: “I sense you want my opinion. Is that true?” Even more simple: “Do you want to know what I think?” At the same time, keep in mind that people may answer these questions in the affirmative out of a sense of pressure, feeling that answering in the negative would be rude. As such, even advice willfully received may pass through a filter of resentment or skepticism, being applied begrudgingly if at all. Still, if your impulse to share in the situation is sufficiently strong, it is better to ask than to leave the situation full of resentment yourself, feeling that your wisdom was ignored. Only know that you may or may not lose your status as confidant if your friend comes to believe such exchanges are really about you.
- Lastly, and of equal importance to our first Guideline: once you’ve either listened and helped your friend sketch out the contours of their story, or outwardly provided advice, relinquish any expectation of your friend’s or relation’s choice. This is akin to my lessons from Community Mapping above: once a person has received wisdom from a source outside themselves, they must be free to nevertheless walk their own path, just as characters in a work of literature do. Recall my musing on the car crashes in Gatsby from the Character Identification chapter: although each time I identify with Nick while reading Gatsby, I long for him to see what I can see in order that he averts that book’s calamities, Nick never does; he still becomes enmeshed in other people’s business, notably Gatsby’s and Daisy’s; Gatsby and Daisy still crash into and kill Myrtle, and Gatsby is then killed by Wilson. As in this situation, our real-life relations must be free to walk their own paths even after receiving our gift of illumination; this is a mutual affair, as only through releasing them to walk their own path will we thus be able to do the same thing ourselves. That is, only by allowing every other person the dignity of their own journey can we in earnest partake in ours.
Do you have rules for sharing wisdom in the lives of others? If so, what are they and why? If not, have you ever encountered resistance when providing guidance for someone else’s life? How do you react when someone does this for you? Do you feel that there are situations when we should give unsolicited advice? For more on these topics, please follow my blog or grab a copy of the book for yourself.