Leaving aside human needs like oxygen and water, there are a host of other human wants as well. We crave affection and achievement; yearn for stability and companionship. I’ve noticed one more ubiquitous desire – a longing, particularly from women, for advice in our personal lives. While the boomer generation grew up reading Dear Abby and most modern women’s magazines have advice columns, this is not a recent phenomenon.
Just after the Exodus, the Israelites swamped Moses, turning to him for guidance. It is fair to assume that females triggered a fair number of those requests. Now, if Moses was available to answer questions today I’d also get in line, but leaping ahead a few millennia, the traditional newspaper women’s advice column goes back to 1898. The concept is credited to the New York Evening Journal editor, William Brisbane. The popularity of the column written by his protégée, Marie Manning under the name of Beatrice Fairfax, must have exceeded any expectations. Thousands of women wrote in with questions ranging from the heart-breaking to the mundane, mostly revolving around love, marriage and family. The column became so iconic that it was referenced in books, plays and songs. In 1943 in the movie Girl Crazy, Judy Garland sang the following lyrics written by Ira Gershwin in a song composed in 1930 by his brother, George:
Beatrice Fairfax – don’t you dare
Ever tell me he will care;
Beatrice certainly had staying power and name recognition!
What is the appeal of asking a stranger for potentially life-changing advice through a medium designed to be impersonal and limited? Perhaps that is precisely the attraction. In some ways, writing to an advice column is similar to buying a lottery ticket. There’s a very small chance of being noticed but the action itself fills one with hope – maybe all my problems will be easily solved! And while ‘Miss Fairfax’ and her spiritual descendants down to today’s Dr. Phil could be firm and no-nonsense in their answers, writing the letter in itself can be quite cathartic. Certainly, utilizing the advice column venue saves the embarrassment of sharing one’s woes with someone with whom you come face to face. And sadly, not everyone has wise counsel in her life to whom she can turn.
The other day, I read a question in a Jewish women’s magazine which was answered by three columnists whom I know and respect. Each individual’s piece of advice was thoughtful, reasonable and wise yet the three responses were contradictory. How can that be?
Honestly, how can it not be? Faced with an anonymous questioner presenting a major life dilemma in a few hundred words with no opportunity for clarification, none of the respondents gave an unequivocal answer. Rather, each supplied food for thought.
Why do so many of us read these columns? Because whether the questions resonate in their specifics, all of us face confusing options in life. The broad spectrum of answers one gleans from these columns are sometimes validating and other times challenging.
The columnists’ responses (and I include my husband and my responses in our own ‘Ask the Rabbi’ column) are not meant to tell someone what to do, with the occasional exception of directing the writer to seek professional, in-person advice. At best, they give perspective, add some useful insights and suggest avenues to explore. They also provide a form of virtual support, reminding us that others wish us well and share similar predicaments.
It is tantalizing to think that clear-cut solutions exist to all problems. With the possible exception of Moses, who was in a category of his own with a direct pipeline to The Advice Counselor, Beatrice Fairfax and those who follow her may be helpful, but the duty of choosing a course of action remains an individual responsibility.