Monday, October 14, 2013

How to Give Real Advice, In Ten Easy Steps

Frederick W. Schmidt, The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Faith in Hard Times

Doctor David Schmidt had a growing family, prestigious Nashville surgical practice, and life worthy of others’ envy. Then glioblastoma, an invasive brain cancer with survival rates near zero, submarined everything. Dave’s brother, Reverend Fred Schmidt, found the usual theological platitudes he’d customarily distributed suddenly too small. Physicians, clergy, and other healing professionals couldn’t address Dave’s suffering. This made Reverend Fred re-examine everything he thought he knew.

This examination produced “The Dave Test,” a series of questions Reverend Fred believes all professionals, friends, and well-meaning strangers should ask themselves before tragedy strikes. Too often, Schmidt says, we offer advice from positions of remove, reciting memorized bromides that don’t address unmet needs. By contemplating these ten questions, before tragedy strikes, Schmidt hopes we can avoid the pitfalls of sharing advice that only patronizes others’ needs.

Too often, we offer advice based upon gut reactions, or the desire to defuse tension, and not on what actually helps others. We generally mean well, and base our suggestions on textbooks or Scripture or something somebody said. But in practice, we dismiss others’ real feelings, diminish their losses, and steal value from what they’re really facing. Because we don’t think about our advice, well in advance, we hurt more than we help.

While these unhelpful tendencies may have many immediate causes, Schmidt traces them to one shared underlying cause: our inability to face our own pain. Schmidt’s ten questions, which on further examination lead to more and better questions, allow us to unpack our own situation. Not that he wants us to compare war wounds; rather, we must first say “yes, that sucks” (as he puts it) from a place stripped of pretense.

Schmidt compiles numerous examples from his own and others’ helping missions, and his brother’s slow, sometimes degrading illness, of ways well-meaning friends and professionals sugar-coat problems and tapdance around raw situations. When we know people in genuine pain, it’s human to belittle them with pat answers. We want to speak certain magic words. It allows us to retain the illusion of control, and continue blithely disregarding our own mortality.

Instead, Schmidt requires would-be helpers to spend time alone with their own struggles, asking ourselves questions we cannot paper over. What does it mean, Schmidt asks us to ask ourselves, when we know this situation will never “get better”? Can we face important questions of transcendence and spirituality without reaching after superstition? How do we let language get between us and others, and can we turn language into a bridge?

Moreover, Schmidt insists we should spend time taking “The Dave Test” now, before the situation arises. Our most common mistake in dispensing advice is that we speak impetuously, expecting experience or book learning or the Spirit to provide answers as we talk. Thus we dispense banalities rather than speaking with meaning. If we try to open ourselves during the crisis, it’s already too late. Caregiving demands long-term preparation.

As an Episcopal priest and seminary professor, Schmidt writes from an explicitly Christian perspective. However, despite occasional Biblical citations and liturgical language, little he says is exclusively Christian; indeed, he cites examples of how his principles apply to other faith traditions. Even people with no faith can provide the care Schmidt describes, if we start by asking ourselves these important, universal questions.

If anything, I wish Schmidt went even further. His back-cover copy promises that “Life is raw. So is the language in this book.” Yet while his early chapters include the occasional s-bomb, he retreats from this as the book progresses, apparently finding comfort in liturgical polysyllables. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Schmidt admits his brother verified the rawest, most unflinching early chapters, but Doctor Dave died partway through the manuscript process.)

While Schmidt never says anything necessarily wrong, he could stand a dose of what Tex Sample calls Hard Living People, those blue-collar hardhats whose life experiences breed intolerance for falsity. Schmidt admits Dave found his greatest comfort among people who spoke from their own brokenness, lacking prefab answers, but only that moment of communion. Why doesn’t Schmidt push further into the topic he broached himself?

But even if Schmidt avoids the full implications, he lays a foundation we can build on. This isn’t a book of pat advice we can dispense flippantly; Schmidt offers a book to let us stop practicing self-deception, know ourselves intimately, and finally help others from a place of shared vulnerability. His questions, and his opportunities, transcend religion or race or sex. We all need someone who knows us where we are.

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