Advertisements ad

The Family Room by Michelle Martin

December 23, 2007

Doing it right

I’m an advice column junkie. Ask Amy, Dear Abby, Carolyn Hax, even “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” in the supermarket checkout. (I don’t think the experts called in by Ladies Home Journal have ever said, “No, it can’t be saved. You need to run screaming from this marriage.”)

I enjoy the window into the lives of other people. It’s a little bit of the voyeuristic thrill without the slimy feeling left by daytime talk shows.

Of course, it’s also a chance to judge: judge the people with the issues to start with, and judge the answers they get. By the looks of it, I’m not the only one who likes to read about other people’s problems. Often, when a columnist gives an offbeat answer, there follows another column or two full of letters taking her or him to task.

The thing is, in the light of day, the answers don’t look so hard.

I sometimes think all the writers need to do is read what they wrote — itself an exercise in defining the parameters of the problem — and they would know the right thing to do.

That’s the most heartening thing about the columns, to my mind: So many people are trying to figure out what the right thing to do is.

Should they break a confidence to stop someone from making a mistake? How should they handle being asked for the umpteenth time when they are going to get married, or have a baby or have another baby? Should they leave their spouse for the old flame from high school?

Some of the answers are always the same. For the question about leaving a spouse for a fling with the past, the answer is uniformly no — with the caveat that the letterwriter should take a look at strengthening his or her marriage.

For the too-personal questions, grin and bear it without resorting to actual violence, although obvious displays of annoyance (“I can’t believe you just asked that!” or “Wow”) are sometimes sanctioned.

For telling secrets, it depends on how deep the secret and how severe the consequences, but answers fall back on trying to persuade whoever shared the secret in the first place to come clean.

That’s another positive, I think. Not only do so many people want to do the right thing, but so many people seem to agree on what it is. Now if we could only get everybody to do the right thing, we as a society would be much further along.

Because as much as people might know what they should do, it isn’t always easy. Quite often, it’s hard — and people who write to advice columnists seem to be hoping against hope that the columnist will give them permission to take the easy way out.

“But it’s hard” is not an excuse for my kids to not finish their homework. Things that are worth doing are rarely easy, I tell them.

And if they want advice on what to do, they can listen to their hearts. If that doesn’t work, they can ask me. After all the columns I’ve read, I’m an expert.

Martin is assistant editor of the Catholic New World. Contact her at [email protected].