The Lost Art of the Advice

Ronald Reagan wrote a moving letter to his son in 1971. He was known as a Hollywood actor back then, 10 years before the became president of the U.S., and his son was about to get married.

The subject Reagan tackled? Marital fidelity, the good ol’ art of staying true to the vows of loving one woman (or man) for a lifetime. Reagan skipped all possible ceremonies or circles one could go through to break the ice and delay this sensitive subject, and went right at it. “You have entered into the most meaningful relationship there is in all human life. It can be whatever you decide to make it.”[1]

Reagan marshalls a range of arguments, as someone acquainted both to temptation and to the effort of staying faithful. On the positive side, he affirms that “There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of a day knowing someone on the other side of that door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps.” He challenges his son to prove his masculinity by charming the woman he was about to marry for the rest of his life, a masculinity greater than that of locker-room fantasies and well-hidden escapades.

But Reagan knew, too, that a negative scenario can often feel more gripping. It can terrify and awake us from stupor, and offered such a picture in detail.

If you truly love a girl, you shouldn’t ever want her to feel, when she sees you greet a secretary or a girl you both know, that humiliation of wondering if she was someone who caused you to be late coming home, nor should you want any other woman to be able to meet your wife and know she was smiling behind her eyes as she looked at her, the woman you love, remembering this was the woman you rejected even momentarily for her favors.

This is great advice: honest, vivid, truthful, poignant. Yet, as I read these words, I started wondering why it felt somewhat old too. Maybe it was Reagan’s reference to the secretary, which made me imagine 1950s secretarial pools and the man-only managerial offices. Maybe it was because our communication has grown shorter and more fragmented – 140-words Twitter feeds, text messages, the quick interaction during breakfast – and we rarely take up the pen and paper nowadays to think of someone and write meaningful paragraphs in a letter. Maybe it is because, in the age of tolerance and political correctness, we feel reticent to address anything moral and sound moralistic and judgmental.

But I long for this kid of good old-fashioned advice. I long for this directness born out of intimacy, for this to courage to address issues that matter. I’ve been postponing a number of needed confrontations – a friend who’s nurturing a crush for a married gal, another who thinks his girlfriend has to obey him just because he is the guy – and all the unpleasant feelings that go with this kind of tough but necessary love. I’d prefer to avoid it all and mind my business, very conveniently and very politically correct.

But still, I do want to receive this kind of advice. I want friends to go pass the zone of politeness and tell me things they think I need to change. And I want to offer wise advice to others too. It sounds like a lost art we, and I, have unlearned, but an art worth remastering, and maybe even resurrecting the notebook accumulating dust in the drawer.

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