It's a plague in our society, and one we ALL face, if from different perspectives.
Imagine this: you go to a summer barbecue and while you're catching up with a friend you haven't seen in awhile, you overhear a conversation a few feet away. Out of the corner of your eye you see the person being accosted is looking around desperately for a way to make a quick exit. And you notice this because you yourself have worn that same mask of polite listening while your mind has been working overtime to both listen so as to respond with gentility and yet somehow find a way to be "busy" immediately.
What's going on?
Well, the interlocutor has just found out the deer-in-the-headlights guy is a doctor and she wants some advice on a growth on the back of her neck, or maybe about her husband's club foot or her daughter's "womanly problems" (and said daughter is on the far side of the nearby picnic table wearing an expression of horror as she realizes her mother is divulging very sensitive and private information to someone with whom she now must socialize).
In fact, when she meets that doctor, to whom her mother is going to learn is single and available, she knows that doctor is going to be thinking, “Honey, you’re nice but I know WAY too much about your vagina and don’t want to live my life hearing about it from your mother!”
Oh, yes. We've all seen it happen, if not with the Disney ending, and we've all been on the wrong end of that scenario, (maybe not exactly, I hope!) Perhaps we've even been the offending party. (And really, I HOPE NOT and sorry guys, but that is REALLY what some mothers will do!)
Now, in that particular scenario, it is legitimate experts who are being questioned and asked to give free advice. If you're a doctor, a lawyer, a police officer, an insurance broker or agent, insurance claims adjuster, or nurse (among other careers!) you're reading this and nodding along, because YOU'VE been the one trying to flee the conversation more times than you can count! In your personal life, you hear more intimate permissionless details about more people and their problems than you do in a single day at the office! Continue nodding....I know this is true. If you're NOT nodding, then you were hired only yesterday. Read this post again in a week.
In our society, expertise is highly valued, as it should be, and to be fair, most people DO respect the fact that these professionals are entitled to time off. They do NOT need to be accosted at church events, random barbecues, cotillions, quinceaneros, picnics, or while waiting in line at the grocery store. They knew, going into their fields, that their area of expertise was going to subject them to people without boundaries, but they are still human and even the greatest of experts among us need some time off before they burn out and people die because they are so stressed from never having time to be a human being that they start making bad decisions and amputate the head instead of the appendix. Or in court, maybe they'll defend a divorce instead of a murder (although there's not much difference.)
The funny thing is, though, that with all this advice-asking going around, there are also a lot of people who are sudden "experts" in any given category that simply has their interest. If Mr. Offensive Interlocultor actually got an answer from a lawyer on a complicated legal issue when accosting the poor guy at a social event, he suddenly becomes a legal expert and will pass on his incomplete advice to someone with any kind of a related issue. And thus, his unprofessional "advice" is actually quite distorted for even HE didn't get a complete answer and in fact, selectively ignored the very REAL advice of the attorney trying to get away from him, to hire his own counsel so that the case could be evaluated accurately and resolved appropriately.
Oh, yes, we all know people who fit into this category as well.
When it comes to people who are in very serious need, though, amazingly the default of most people is to limit their OWN advice and to direct that person to a competent authority for their problem. They might have names of people with whom they've had good experiences, proper professional offices or organizations and the like. They realize, even if they are usually from the advice-giver category that some things are still too big for them and in their sincere good will, they know someone else is better qualified. I find it very interesting that in these cases, those people take a step back and become champion supporters and for once, hold their tongues and ask, "what does your doctor say?" or "what does your lawyer say?" before they hop into presumption-of-personal-expert mode and start advising away.
I think if I were to study sociology, I'd do a dissertation on this particular social behavior encompassed in this post.
Of course, as you might expect, I have another point to make.
All of the above goes out the window or is entirely reversed in the case of vocational discernment.
If a man or woman reveals that they are discerning a religious vocation, or priesthood, even if they've done a great deal of research, have a spiritual director, a discernment group, etc., suddenly everyone OUTSIDE of those groups becomes a self-appointed expert.
Suddenly, the person or people who know the MOST about the topic are relegated to the intellectual and spiritual equivalent of an infant. People who know NOTHING about what the discerner has been through or what OFFICIAL advice they have been given and which they are faithfully following take them "under their wings" and immediately start firing off completely unneeded or even illogical advice about what they should do, where they should go, what they should be doing, the pitfalls, and even try to DICTATE specific communities or seminaries to them!
This type of advice also assumes the person's spiritual advisor or group must be fully incompetent or the person in question would already be a priest, professed religious, or 20 years married.
My dear readers, I know this for two reasons: I've experienced it repeatedly and because I blog about it, I've gotten emails and Facebook messages from other people experiencing the SAME DANG THING!
What's really annoying is that many of the advice-givers will impart their lack of wisdom while pointing out smugly that "God speaks through people who know and love you!" so as to shut down any possibility that we can turn down their “obviously-perfect” expertise about something they've never actually discerned for themselves.
We who are discerning are also aware that most of our self-appointed prophets aren't actually privy to the Divine Processions, and if they were, they wouldn't all be giving advice that directly conflicts with that of everyone else and that of our own Spiritual Directors or those of similar privileged status.
I really find this to be fascinating, and really can't explain it without more study, and maybe something scientific (as opposed to pure experience/observation).
Why IS it, exactly, that, outside of the discernment of vocation, people are ASKING advice, but when it comes to this topic, they are ALL experts?
Why IS it that when a woman says she is considering religious life everyone has a favorite CARMELITE monastery?
Why is it that when she says she likes the Dominicans everyone assumes she's never heard of the Nashville Dominicans (Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia) or their offshoot, the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist? Where do you think she got her first interest in the Dominicans (given this culture)? And why can’t they understand that the fact she knows about them, she is not discerning them any longer for specific reasons?
Or of course, when she says she's discerned some Order or Congregation, the unsolicited "expert", without batting an eye, immediately begins to discuss how she should prepare to enter the local Carmelite monastery and she herself would be willing to accompany her and will arrange the entrance Mass?
Why is it that even when the discerner says God is leading her to visit a particular convent, everyone STILL suggests she check out 10 other of their favorite communities, and the first on their list is a Carmelite cloister, perhaps the one in India?
Seriously. I wish I was kidding.
The second to the favorite Carmelites are the Franciscan communities, which often, people who recommend them don't even know whether they wear habits or not, or what their apostolate is or whether or not they are faithful to the Magisterium of have their own brand of "Catholicism".
I'm sorry, but it's true. I’ve experienced nearly ALL of the above. What I haven’t, other discerners who have contacted me HAVE.
We’re not angry!!!! Please note and read on!
The reality is, we suspect, is that unsolicited "experts" actually are taking an opportunity to give their own view, perhaps because they never properly discerned their OWN vocation and are trying to live vicariously through those who are. Maybe they just want to feel needed. Maybe giving advice is something they do every minute of every day and they aren't aware they're doing it.
The one thing I do find to be constant is that those who give advice DO HONESTLY CARE and unfortunately, they're also very sensitive sorts who take it personally when someone doesn't seem to want or need their advice. They will feel very hurt for a very long time if their advice isn't followed or accepted without question.
And actually, that's what makes these recent blog posts so hard. Because I KNOW that in outright refusing and even condemning unsolicited advice, I am unintentionally offending people I have no desire to offend.
But I'm not a rug and am tired of feeling like one. If that offends some people, so be it.
Discernment is hard enough without having to go around feeling like we have to defend and justify our actions, lack of actions, feelings or lack of feelings, decisions or lack of decisions at every single turn.
I feel I have to speak up on behalf of myself and EVERYONE in discernment because we're tired of being offended ourselves by people who don't seem to think that we can possibly interpret God's will for us without them. And yes, often unsolicited advice is outright offensive. And no, we don't tell you this because we love you, too, and know that your intentions are good and that you don't mean any offense either!
Again...if you've been strong enough to read this far, please know, we love you, we respect you, we thank you for your prayers and support. But please, please, please, stop telling us inane things like "stop trying so hard!" or "go to this monastery" or "give up your dog now so you don't have to find someone later" or "My niece entered X abbey, and she's happy so you would be too". And dear God, if I hear one more time of the rumor that I am delaying because I'm looking for "the prettiest habit" I think I might puke. Really; I don't care about fashion NOW, what makes you think I care about religious fashions? (Except for the habit thing; I do desire to wear a habit for I have discerned it is important. That has no bearing on what others discern...only me.)
We have certain people to whom we are listening. We have certain people who know more details, respect us enough to know we're trying as hard as we need to, and who have assured us that our agony isn't a type that needs comfort, for it is a purifying agony that a vacation with our dog or cat or a ski trip out West won't cure (especially in July when Aspen is devoid of useful snow). *sigh...my dust-gathering skis...*
One more point: the people I know who are legitimate experts in things RARELY offer their advice without being asked, and if they do so, they do so cautiously and with a disclaimer. There are a few people in my life who are not in my designated set of advisors and to whom I will listen because they are "experts" who cautiously advance their advice, and are humble enough to realize I might ignore them (and that it's not personal!). In their advice, they encourage me to go to my SD, they encourage me to ignore them if their advice conflicts with anything "official", etc.
Please be gentle with people who are discerning their Vocations. If you are privileged enough to hear them express to you, through a blog or personally, that they have been or are going through a rough time, please do not minimize the experience, don’t “poo-poo” it, don’t try to “fix” it in any way.
This post is not personal. It’s not directed at anyone. And in fact, it was written on behalf of all souls, everywhere, who are discerning Vocations and have been the hapless recipients of well intentioned people who would be horrified if they knew the angst they were causing with their own “advice”.