Kaiser, the hospital I go to and have gone to nearly my whole life, has line you can call that will connect you to an “advice nurse” if you have a non-urgent medical question. I think this is pretty standard. When I was younger, I thought you called the Adviceners. My mom would say, “You have a fever – I think I’ll call the Adviceners.” I imagined these Adviceners as being a league of wise, learned people, ready to dispense medical wisdom over the phone. When I discovered their real name, it’s safe to say I was pretty disappointed. I love that nearly everyone has a story about a misheard or misunderstood word or term; my thesis advisor in college, for instance, thought “Sabbatical” was an island that teachers went to, to spend a year-long vacation to kick back and refresh themselves.
Anyway, at the post office near our house, on the inside of one of the big blue recycling bins, partway down – and thus not always visible, depending on the level of paper – is a Priority Mail sticker on which someone has scrawled out the following in permanent marker:
“Love is always the appropriate reaction.”
Interestingly, when I googled the phrase several months ago, there were only a couple hits – but now, there are pages and pages of references. It’s been seen scrawled on pavement and on walls all over the place. It’s a “thing” now. And I like it.
Looking at the phrase closely, it’s not really true, not in all cases. If someone spits in your face and insults the memory of your grandfather, say, you don’t have to react with love. If someone cuts in front of you on the freeway and flips you off in the process, you don’t have to love them. You don’t need to love suicide bombers or murderers. Or people who steal your pens at the office. Or when people don’t pull over when driving 15 MPH under the limit on a windy, one-lane road. Why don’t they pull over? What is it that they enjoy about having a caravan of 8 furious drivers lined up behind them? Is it a power trip? Are they just not noticing? What is with this strange phenomenon, and why are the Democrats too chicken-shit to take care of it???
But – that’s not really what great advice is about. Great advice is about the spirit of a suggestion, about grasping the root of the lesson and applying it thoughtfully, wisely, and discerningly. Everyone needs to be loved; not all the time, but sometimes. People who commit horrible acts almost certainly did not receive enough love in their lives and suffer from it. As Jessica has discovered in her first year of teaching, the most difficult kids are the ones who need the most love; she is in the process of forming a personal teaching philosophy that includes love as its primary foundation. One of the reasons that Jessica and I get along so well, and that we decided to get married, is that our versions of love – and how to use it in daily life – are quite similar. They’re not identical, but they line up in more ways than they don’t.
We can, I believe, react to many types of situations through a lens of love. One of the biggest life lessons I have experienced happened several years ago when I learned to forgive myself for past mistakes and past regrets. Things I’d said, done, not said or not done, hung around and haunted me longer than they needed to. A dirty name I called a classmate in Kindergarten. A lie I told my parents. Something I’d said over the phone to a girl after a first date. Eventually, I was able to get away from berating myself. It’s not that I’m unaffected by mistakes – I still, of course, feel guilt and remorse. It’s that I am able to forgive myself because I know that, since I am a good person, whatever I did or said was something that I felt was the right thing in that moment, in the context of my life at the time. I’ll make plenty of mistakes and I’ll regret many of them; but I will also try to remember that there was a reason I made them.
And I think this is the type of courtesy that I attempt to extend to others. It doesn’t always work. I get angry at slow drivers, at people who talk on their cell phones in inappropriate situations. I get into arguments where I can come off as a jerk. I struggle to understand people who are homophobic, who voted for McCain, or who listen to Rush Limbaugh. I don’t even always believe in my own philosophies at all moments. Besides, I’m not advocating a free pass for everyone, nor a all-love-no-consequences approach. But what I do try to do is give people the benefit of the doubt. When I know and trust someone, I understand that they are not out to hurt people, and so if they do, it was a mistake. If I don’t know someone at all, I try to assume that they are probably good. I try to remember that everyone was raised differently, everyone has different sets of moral values, and everyone deserves to be heard at least once.
Besides, love – and kindness – are ways of disarming people. Awhile ago, a woman parked in front of our house and took up two spaces with her car. Jessica and I are sensitive to this – people do it all the time and it wastes valuable parking space. From across the street, Jessica politely asked the woman if she could pull her car forward. The woman, clearly not in a happy state, huffed and puffed and claimed she was not taking up two spaces. Jessica politely insisted. The woman angrily got into her car, moved forward 4 inches, and got out again. “That’s far enough,” she said, and started scurrying away. “Um, ma’am,” Jessica called, “you’re still right in the middle.” “No I’m not, no I’m not,” the woman said. Then she was gone.
It was annoying. But Jessica kept a cool head and wrote a note that she left on the woman’s windshield. It wasn’t mean*. It wasn’t even passive aggressive. It was, in fact, kind. It explained why we had asked her to move and wished her a good day. That was it. We both forced ourselves to concede that the woman appeared deeply unhappy, and that she was likely being rude to us not out of spite but rather out of frustration with something. I was actually proud of us, in a weird way, for not engaging in a pointless shouting match and for taking the kind approach. I’m not always able to do that.
*My next door neighbor HATES people who take up two spaces. She leaves notes on the winshield that usually are a variant of “Never take up two spaces again ASSHOLE.” Not quite as effective, methinks.
What am I even talking about? I’m not sure. Adviceners? Love? Kaiser? Parking?
Let’s regroup. Here’s a picture of some flowers:
In closing, I wanted to share a few of my favorite bits of advice, in the form of quotes and passages from Kurt Vonnegut – one of my favorite authors. Vonnegut has a beautiful, sharp, almost viciously effective way of dispensing advice. These three quotes essentially sum up my life philosophy:
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”
“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—Goddammit, you’ve got to be kind.”
What are your favorite bits of advice?