Turning the Tables on Four Years of Advice

By Clay Risen

During my time at Georgetown, I’ve heard, and heeded, a lot of pieces of advice. Just do it. Seize the day. Befriend books. Wear sunscreen. I’ve received them from relatives, read them in magazines and heard them in speeches. These “goodbye columns” are supposed to be more of the same – as many life stories and short quips of advice as you can fit in 1,000 words or so. And I was going to do just that – until someone wrote a dance song along the same lines and sort of stole my thunder.

When it came down to it, though, I actually couldn’t really think of any advice I’ve followed that has really made me happy, or, in my opinion, a better person. This isn’t to say that I blame quips of advice for my own shortcomings. Rather, I think such snippets of supposedly sage wisdom, which in this postmodern world are the closest to philosophy most of us ever come, all too often glaze over what life is really all about. Paying too much attention to these seemingly brilliant brain droppings can be a dangerous thing.

Take University President Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J.’s famous opening line, “befriend books.” Use your time in school to read the great works, study the great thoughts and memorize the great dates. Good advice, I guess, except it, like much of the academic world, belies a tension between thinking and doing, between learning about life and actually living it. I’ve done my best to be a good student, but every time I crack open a book I think about how I am slowly killing myself. I want to continue on to graduate school, and yet whenever I pass a baby in a stroller or a couple walking hand in hand through the park I wonder if it is worth it. If all the time I have spent befriending books, as it were, wouldn’t have been better spent befriending people.

Another piece of advice I’ve always followed has a little history behind it. After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee became the president of what is now Washington & Lee University. One day a war widow brought her young son to meet the general, and asked him what sort of advice he might give her about raising him. Lee said, “teach him to deny himself.”

Self-criticism and discipline can be good things. One should never be happy with who he or she is, but always strive to be better. But doing this has also left me cold, unable to enjoy the kinds of things I loved as a child because I drive myself harder and harder toward a goal I’m not even sure I want to reach. In college I have learned to question myself, but I wish I had learned how to cut myself a little slack, too. Sometimes the “A” is not worth the effort.

A friend of my grandfather’s once told me this: A man with no enemies has no backbone. Which means, I think, that you should stand up for what you believe in even if others aren’t too happy about it. Sounds true enough, and besides, when you’re young anything your grandparents’ generation says is instant gold.

But a man with too many enemies has no heart, and it’s all too easy to confuse stridency with an unwillingness or inability to communicate and empathize with other people. I’d like to think that the enemies I have made and the friendships I have broken were unfortunate consequences of my strength of character, but in retrospect I think it’s just the opposite, that I’ve let too many people fall by the wayside of my life because I was too obtuse and self-centered to listen to what they were really saying.

Then there are the quips about life in general: Life is great, life is bad, life sucks (and then you die), life is strange and, as some wacky Italians are wont to tell you, life is even beautiful. But in my opinion the only quip that comes anywhere close to the vicinity of explaining life is from the father of the garage band, Lou Reed. After his friend Doc Pomus died, Reed wrote what I consider to be his best album since his days with the Velvet Underground, “Magic and Loss.” In it, he tries to reconcile the beauty of life with the unfathomable pain of death. In the end, he concludes that there is no conclusion, that life is, at best, a draw. “There’s a bit of magic in everything,” he writes, “and then some loss to even things out.”

I’ll take it one step further. Life has no meaning. It is not good, it is not evil, it is nothing. It is not meaningless, though, because the one thing life is is lived. We give it meaning; it doesn’t give us meaning. To steal and mangle a quote from Oscar Wilde (when you steal, steal big), life isn’t moral or immoral. It is lived well, or it is lived poorly.

I am only 22, but I’ve already seen things most people wouldn’t believe, and I have experienced things I would not wish for my worst enemies. And when it comes to assessing my life thus far, I’d like to think that I, like the gambler I never was, had broken even – that I’ve done at least as much right as I have wrong, that I’ve helped as many people as I’ve hurt. I’d probably be fooling myself, but at least I can pretend.

I’m running out of space (and time), so I guess I’d better make myself coherent. If adult life is anything, it is an endless rerunning of nostalgia, a constant yearning for the days when school and money and sex and love didn’t really matter, and we could run carelessly through green elysian fields until our mothers called us in for dinner. When it didn’t matter who won or lost or how they played the game. To me, it seems like we spend the first 20 years of our lives trying to get out of the womb and the last 50 years trying to get back in.

To compensate, we make up moralities, ethics, codes of conduct and yes, quips of advice that are supposed to tell us how best to deal with life once we’ve found ourselves stuck in the middle of it. But these things all fail, and fail categorically, because they cannot give us what we really want – a life without borders, without rules, a life before we thought we knew what life was all about in the first place.

Someday I’ll look back on my time at Georgetown and remember only the good things. For now though, while all the pluses and minuses are fresh in my mind, I guess I’ll break my own rule and pass on a little advice to relatively less experienced Hoyas: Take this time to figure out for yourself who you are, what you want. Don’t let other people impose their own hopes and dreams on you, and don’t shy away from learning about the world for fear of violating some arcane moral code. Learn to live life, and to live it well.

Clay Risen is a former viewpoint editor, editor in chief, senior news editor and contributing editor for The Hoya.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.