August, 1962

If I were asked to name the virtue which most resembles a panacea for the problems of human relationships I would probably name patience meaning in a very large sense the ability to keep calm and wait: till all facts were known, till the air was clear of the heat of excitement or passion till the slashing sword of enthusiasm which can damage in its impetuous zeal grew instead into the skillful, slow, feeling hands of the sculptor bringing life into or out of clay or stone or wood. Almost every difficult situation resolves itself into other situations, constantly transmuting itself from seemingly impossible shapes into clearer paths never becoming diamond but not always dark and terrifying. The stresses which are often laid on a person usually are worsened by urgent striving to change them, when by waiting and watching we see problems resolving themselves, complex situations simplifying, and the work getting done slowly and surely which we sought to accomplish all at once. This is harder to see today, when the pace of man's life seems to have outsped his ability to keep up with solving his problems, when transportation is so fast that we no longer see anything, communications are so fast that we do not understand anything people are on the move such that we form few deep friendships in a whirling mass of acquaintances ideas never getting deeply understood because of a constant barrage of other ideas. But to ameliorate these general problems we must still be patient and quiet; we can not solve them all hurriedly.

Yet impatience, impetuousness, eagerness seem to be basic to human nature, and we are all often demanding a quick solution to our problems. If we can not immediately do this ourselves, we turn to others for advice: friends, teachers, books. And time and again we see our friends and others ignoring our advice because they can not accept it or want more or take it and still reach no solution to their problem or come to us imputing to us some divine wisdom or insight which we know we don't really have, yet we must give help or see them become more troubled. Or perhaps more pointedly we see ourselves asking advice and then not following it, because it was not the advice we wanted or because we lack the commitment although we like the course of action. We read or hear great generalizations of human experience, and then do very little about them. So I ask, what are we really trying to do in all our searching for advice, for better ways of action than we are in? Do we really need it, or are we only seeking approval for our own half-formed intentions? Or is it still something else?

We have heard all these concepts, or words, or perhaps even realities: commitment, help, needs, frustration; and our misunderstanding of ourselves and each other in dealing with them. What is commitment and how do we corne to possess it; what is mutual help and how do we give it; when does real need become imposition and advice become unwelcome; what is understanding and how do we achieve it; can we realize our wants and needs and seek to meet them? I wish I could answer these questions, but all I can say is that I believe that they are more or less on the minds of everyone; probably most people find someone else's answer and then try to shape themselves to it, rather than fashioning one, or none even, for themselves. I think such questions are at the bottom of devotion to all philosophical psychological, religious systems. Furthermore, everyone has some answer more or less, limited maybe by their adherence to some system of beliefs, or by the narrowness of their scope and application, or by habits of dependency and waiting for others to make decisions. But our answers are always incomplete, and the situations arise which go beyond them, and again we are forced to turn outside ourselves for help.

A1though anyone's answers may be tangent to another's such that a kinship is felt, the answers to a person's problems come ultimately from himself, from his own struggle with experience and ideas. So we must examine the responsibility in giving advice. Do I do well to tell others how to live when the decisions must be made by them, the understanding must be gotten by them? Beyond that even, what do I have to say to anyone? except perhaps my own experience; my synthesis and analysis of his experience may be wholly useless for him, besides keeping from making his own analyses and syntheses. To attempt to solve anoth,er's problems seems to me to be the ultimately audacious action, especially to do it deliberately and regularly, as in church; we rarely know much more than another person except in small areas, nor do we have very many abilities which are unique to ourselves. To attempt to solve another's problems is falsely putting oneself on a higher pedestal, since although we may be more experienced in and capable of seeing certain things, our advice is not helpful if the other person cannot see or experience those things. To attempt this is justified only out of compassion and if the need is personally brought and aid is urgently sought, but this can only occur on an individual level; it cannot occur either in a large group or meeting, or through the medium of writing. The lecturer or preacher or essayist can only be interesting or beautiful, even if true; he can never touch the heart of any particular person's problem because his medium has floated up out of that realm where he can touch them, his words and ideas have become abstract instead of personal.

Let me digress and enlarge upon this and observe that what people desire and need is response from other individuals. On a one-to-one level, I can understand the other person, and he can understand me; but on a group level, I can no longer understand the other person directly, nor he me, because of the various pretenses and roles which we habitually use in a group of three or larger. There is a kind of group understanding and a need for gregarious relationships, but these are secondary to individual relationships and understanding probably because man is a unitary being, not a multiple being. Of course it may be that the individual and group needs are really the same, but then it would seem that these pretenses and roles only stand in the way of reaching individual understandings on a group level. So we should attempt to get past them; we should ask, what is each person (in a group) really feeling and saying what are they thinking, can I understand what they really want and need? Half of the conversation in the world arises out of just need for response, and most of the rest out of desire or need to show off to appear either informed or clever or, amusing. Very little touches deeply either the personal realities between people, or the crucial realities of existence and being.

So I can't say "Don't give advice" because that would be giving advice, and anyway is a generality rather than help for any individual problem; I can't say "Be patient and wait" because we are naturally not patient and do not want to wait, unless we have by our own unique suffering decided to follow that path. Is it a good path? 'If not, what would be a better path?

I   shall finish with a little story I heard from a minister; he was visited by a young boy who had been sent to him for counseling. After some while the boy confessed that he felt no communication no desire to talk with the minister. So the minister asked, "What would you ask a truly wise man if you met him?"

The boy thought a moment and replied, "Nothing." This surprised the minister, who exclaimed But then what would you do?" The boy's eyes narrowed mischievously, and he answered, "I'd just watch him!"

(originally published under the name of John Fitz)