Tell me what to do

I just finished watching the gloriously trashy train-wreck that is Netflix’s Love Is Blind, and I’m not ashamed to say that I loved every moment, even if I did spend much of each episode half-shouting at the screen various protestations of disbelief that the characters could consistently show themselves to be so lacking in self-awareness.

It may be trashy reality TV, sure, but Love Is Blind also happens to tackle one of my favorite subjects, a subject about which I’ve made my own films, namely how our self-perceptions do or don’t match up with reality. I love watching (and writing) characters who have big ideas about who they are in life, but who consistently lie to or mislead themselves. Basically, that’s every scene of Love Is Blind.

I don’t mean to pick on the real-life people who put themselves through such a stunt (I actually gained a lot of affection for one or two of them as the episodes rushed forward). The truth is that self-knowledge is really hard. Like, really, really hard.

Self-knowledge is truly the project a lifetime - if you choose to take it up. For when I look around, I often see people who haven’t given themselves too much thought. I don’t mean that they aren’t selfish; I mean that they rarely engage in deep introspection, or a watching of one’s self, or retrospective analysis of one’s decisions, or a setting down and frequent revisiting of one’s goals and values. And if they do these things, the times are few and far between, perhaps in the days after New Year’s, or in the aftermath of a breakup.

Perhaps many people feel they already figured themselves out long ago, or that certain decisions aren’t worth revisiting, or that they’ve gone down certain paths long enough that excessive introspection would be all but worthless.

But to get back a moment to Love Is Blind. In the final episode (no real spoilers ahead), the participants must decide whether to go through with a marriage to someone who they’ve just met a few weeks earlier, or say goodbye - as the producers insistently repeat - forever.

In one of these moments, just before walking down the isle, one of the women in the show turns to her mom, as if asking what she should do. This was one of the moments I was screaming in to the television: don’t do it! You’re crazy! You’re all crazy! Just date a few more months, or, preferably, years, and THEN decide whether to get married!

So, what advice does the mom give? None.

Those who know us best

One of the nicest bits of self-discovery I’ve ever done came from an exercise that a life coach once put me through (I wasn’t paying said life coach, but I did take a life-coach ex-classmate of mine up on a “free consultation” once). During the consultation, he asked me to hang up the phone with him and immediately call three friends - not family members - who I thought would definitely pick up. I was to ask them about three qualities they saw in me, among other questions.

These were three people from different parts of and times in my life, and none of them knew each other. I can’t recall everything I was supposed to ask them, or what they said in response, except for the one thing they all said in common: that I essentially ranked very high on thoughtfulness. Thoughtfulness about work, about relationships, and about life in general.

In retrospect, I wish I could have this service for all major life choices. It would be in the form of a standing monthly check-in: ok, people who know me best, it’s time to give me your feedback on everything I’ve been doing and saying, and time for us to work through and discuss major decisions coming down the pike. But not only does this service not exist, often it’s the people who know us best who refuse to tell us anything at all, especially when the stakes are high.

Why is that, exactly? There could be a lot overlapping factors:

  1. They don’t want to get in the way of our decision making. Sort of like a parent saying to their kid that they must learn to make up their own mind.

  2. They don’t want to give us wrong advice that both they and we will regret later on down the line. Relatedly, They are afraid of giving advice which, if wrong, could damage the relationship.

  3. Giving advice feels presumptuous. Who are we to presume that we should know what others should do, especially the further their personalities and circumstances are from our own.

  4. Even if it doesn’t feel presumptuous, triangulating through the complex matrixes of another person’s life to give them useful advice is just really hard and takes a lot of time. Most of us have our hands full with our own decisions.

Especially when the stakes are high, that is precisely the time we tend to recoil from telling anyone what they should do. If I tell my closest friend not to marry someone, and then he marries the person anyway, I’ll always be that friend who thought they shouldn’t get married. No one wants to be that friend.

But I would argue that moments like those are precisely the time when we need to support those who we know and love most, not just with our presence and support, but with what we think. And not just that: concrete help. A next step, a new question to think through, a value to clarify, a connection to make, a person to call. You know: real help and guidance.

“I’ll support you no matter what”

Take the mom in Love Is Blind who refused to say one way or another whether her daughter should go say “I do.” I would argue the daughter desperately needed her at that moment for her mom’s true thoughts. Especially because the show until then had been explicitly designed on a timeline so as to prevent the kind of objective distance from the life-changing decisions they were being expected to make.

Participants were sequestered away in “pods,” only able to talk to each other, and lacked access to their phones or anyone from the outside world for weeks. It was like fog of war but for emotions. The only people they could talk to (in the beginning) were each other, and thus all of them suffered from the same blindness, so to speak, about themselves.

The situation may seem fake, but actually life is like that sometimes: in the midst of a bad marriage, for example, with your family on the line and your whole life in front of you, it can be next to impossible to understand one’s own options and feelings, much less what to do about them. The same can be said for layoffs, job changes, moves, having kids, and basically any situation that requires balancing of priorities when values, emotions, and/or identity are involved.

We need emotional support in these moments, yes - but what we so often lack is someone who knows us who is willing to help us navigate the decisions and the tradeoffs. Really navigate them.

Many of the parents in Love Is Blind, when they finally do get a chance to speak with their kids, tell them they’ll support whatever decision they make. Of course they will - because they’re good parents. Just because you give a loved one your concrete opinion doesn’t mean you relinquish your other responsibility in the matter, which is to reassure them that you will be by their side no matter which decision they make.

Similarly, telling someone, “only you can make this decision,” while functionally true, is next to useless as far as support goes. Especially if you know the person well.

The spreadsheet of life

Those of you who have been reading this newsletter know that I have been thinking long and hard about my work, my career, and the future generally. When I talk about these things in person with close friends or family I always make it a point to ask directly for input or advice. “I’m very open to suggestions,” is my go-to. And I really do try to be open to them.

Not everyone is, of course. There are a lot of people who want to be told only what they want to hear, or simply be comforted with a hug. They don’t want your advice, and if they don’t ask, then don’t give. This article is not meant as an exhortation for everyone to start telling everyone else what to do with their lives.

But it is an ask to be on the lookout for when someone you love really needs more than just a hug or a drink (although both are almost always welcomed). Sometimes what they need is for you to sit down in front of the spreadsheet of life with them and start working through it in all its complexity.