The Sound of Great Advice

I’ve found that advice is easiest to absorb when I am wide open and at my most emotionally vulnerable. In fact, I’ll bet the ‘quality’ of the advice I’ve received over the years has been in direct proportion to my ability to hear and not deflect it.

There’s risk involved, of course. Most people aren’t ready for the honest answer when they lob out a cheerful ‘how are you?’ You can end up feeling worse when you reveal genuine stress or fear and then realize you’ve just made the other person’s day a little uncomfortable.

Besides, most of us want to project strength and confidence. In my work, I’m often telling people how to pump themselves up, crack open the can of Superwoman jump-juice and believe in what they can do. It’s good advice, and I stand by it.

It’s just that some days, the only way through is confessing to the pain because there’s so much of it. Even in public, as I recently discovered.

It’s not the end-of-day depletion I worry about. That’s to be “expected” as a single earner, mother of two small children, in NYC. It’s the days I wake up depleted that are the hardest for me. When, I’m facing the whole day with a genuine question about how I will get through, that’s when I’m alarmed.

Most of us cope by relying on a mantra, or a rote activity. I make lists. The more overwhelming the wave is, the longer the list. Usually this keeps me sane and the day structured: bank deposits, permissions slips, phone calls to return, stats to confirm. I just keep checking the boxes.

But some days I realize there’s no way in hell I’m going to remember everything on this lifeline — er — list. And in the worst case, this truth occurs to me when I’m somewhere I can’t do a single thing to alter it, even in some pointless symbolic way.

If only MTA buses could use despair as an alternative fuel. The long waits on cold street corners, the wheezy, halting pace, crowding and the lack of smiles can make a bad day feel like the end of the world.

On my last crosstown trip, I was wound up so tightly I almost forgot to breathe. My list had spun out of control. I realized I was past my limit when a few random tears turned into the ugliest cry I remember having beyond the safety of home. I was just too exhausted to fight back the sadness. I knew people were watching, but I was about one breath away from being helpless to do anything about it.

So you can’t say, strictly, that I asked for the advice of the disheveled man in the wheelchair next to me. Apparently though, he knew genuine distress when he saw it, and didn’t turn away.

“It will be OK,” he said kindly.

There was no need for me to explain. “I hope so,” I replied. “It’s just a hard day today.”

“There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Life isn’t always peaches and cream, but it does get better. Stay strong and have faith. Keep going. Don’t stop.”

I sensed he often strung these old phrases together. Clearly not in the best of circumstances himself, I guessed he relied on his mantra like I rely on my lists.

On another day, I might have heard a string of platitudes. But in that vulnerable moment I could take his words to heart. Faith, indeed. That day I showed up for a lot of people and for myself, thanks to the kindness of a stranger and the right words I could actually hear at the exact right moment.

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