What do you do when you realize, years after the fact, that
you gave bad advice to someone? What if it wasn’t only one person, but many?
What if you gave the advice in a book or article and have no idea how to find
the people who took your advice?
If you are a writer, you might
choose to write about your change of heart.
A while ago, I read Peggy
Orenstein’s lament when, despite years of insisting that she didn’t want
children, she found out that she actually did. She also discovered that leaving
that decision until she was in her late thirties led to six, tormented, neurotic
years during which she damaged and almost destroyed her marriage, spent tens of
thousands of dollars and frequently behaved shamefully. She honestly portrays
herself in quite a negative light: the self-centered product of a women’s
movement that delivered false promises. (To
her credit, during those years she did turn down a career-enhancing opportunity
to appear on national TV advocating for childlessness.)
The Sunday N.Y. Times featured another “Was I wrong?” piece
on June 24, 2012. In Missing
the Love Boat, Jessica Bennett admits that she may have destroyed a
priceless relationship when, at 24, she turned down a proposal, insisting that
marriage was unnecessary. A while later she proceeded to write a cover story
for Newsweek telling young women around the world why the institution of marriage
could be discarded. Today, while recognizing that getting married is not a
guarantee of life-long commitment, she honestly faces the fact that by turning
down her beloved’s proposal, she may have caused the pain that lay at the root
of her relationship’s demise, an outcome she mourns. As time goes on will she also face Ms.
Orenstein’s dilemma, realizing that the traditional idea of marriage and family
that she so dreaded, is actually that for which she yearns?
We all make mistakes. However, when we publicly champion
wrong ideas, as writers, teachers or public policy influencers, we are not the
only ones living with the outcome of our erroneous thinking. I admit to
empathy. To my husband’s dismay, there are nights I lay awake, tormented at
what I did or did not say at venues ranging from an individual seeking my
advice to TV appearances or public speeches. While I haven’t authored a
Newsweek cover story, I do speak up, and I am aware that people sometimes are
influenced by my words. While I hope I haven’t advocated wrong causes, what I
want to say is not necessarily what I do say, and what people hear is too often
not what I thought I said.
Most of us do not sway tens of thousands with our words.
However, we all affect those around us and the option of remaining completely
silent and not interacting with others for fear of saying the wrong thing would
be a tragic loss to individuals and society. Of necessity, we speak about decisions
we are making whose effects on our own lives are often not visible until years,
even decades, later.
Each of us needs to accept responsibility for our own choices
and to be aware that as persuasive, scientific and reasonable something may sound,
it may be very wrong. We must arm ourselves with moral and ethical compasses, unchanging
core principles, and a permanent vision of life to which we cling no matter how
rare or ridiculed it is and no matter how convincing the arguments made against
our beliefs. We can certainly seek advice and explore issues. Nevertheless, we
need to know that ‘the buck stops here’ when making decisions. When those who
beam a false cultural message face reality, there is no “rewind” button they
can press, that allows them or us a second chance.