I never wanted to give you advice. When the idea of writing an advice column was initially suggested to me, I couldn’t think of anything more awful. Listening to people—strangers, friends, family members—and sharing my perspective about the real cause of their pain is something I’ve done naturally since childhood. But I didn’t think I could write my responses down in a way that would carry the nuances and insight of verbal conversation.
I was wrong. I’m so grateful to SN&R for encouraging me to try. Writing the Ask Joey column has pushed me to hone my skills as a writer and forced me to evolve as a person. I’ve also uncovered some secrets. Here are a few I’ve realized since 1996 when I began writing this column.
Everyone struggles in relationships: We’re all dog-paddling in the same dating pools, trying to keep from sinking as we search for someone to evolve with. Marriage and other long-term commitments are in the same boat. After all, partnerships are a series of subtle and overt negotiations and trade-offs, sometimes spoken, frequently not. A union that seems perfect now, can be dead in the water tomorrow. Between those struggles, intimate, committed relationships are a blessing of connection, affirmation and spiritual growth. That’s also true for those who see dating as an experience on a spiritual path, rather than as a path to an end: partnership.
We all need relationship education: Only a sliver of the adult population has had healthy relationship role models. So it’s an act of self-love to educate ourselves about creating and maintaining healthy connections with family, friends and intimate partners. There are plenty of books on these topics, and a few are quite good. But if transformation is the true goal, we must develop a friendship with silence. Meditation and contemplation are essential to strengthen the skill of reflection. So is journaling. We must also engage in therapeutic conversations with someone who has the backbone to compassionately, but directly, call us on our hypocrisy, inconsistencies and delusions. A safe environment in which to practice new behaviors is also necessary. Yes, relationships require effort, and self-understanding is among the most important skills to develop in life.
It’s a gift to live life backward: While most of my friends and co-workers were deeply invested in building careers, raising families and hitting the gym, I was unpacking my mind and heart. In my early 30s, I practiced and taught yoga and self-inquiry, studied world religions, herbal medicine, poetry, myth, dream interpretation, meditation and energy medicine. In my early 40s, I studied spiritual direction, relationship education and practiced meditation. I had experienced and witnessed significant amounts of violence growing up, and as a result I had symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that was not well-understood 20 years ago when I was first diagnosed. Determined to heal, I devoted myself to healing. I lost friends and other significant relationships along the way, because, as many people told me, I was just “too different.” Funny thing is, embracing my own path and choosing to think differently than the prevailing culture is exactly what saved me.
Why my advice seems so insightful: I’ve made a lot of mistakes. (That number in your head right now? I’ve made far more bad choices than that.) But my commitment to self-understanding and to friends who possess the rare capacity to see and tell the truth, has transformed my errors into elegant insights. I’ve also carefully chosen therapists, spiritual directors and workshop facilitators who understand spiritual evolution. Anything gold I’ve gleaned along the way, I offer to you with the prayer that it lights your path, too.
Your willingness to invite me to pay attention to your problems has inspired me to continue to be fully attentive to my own. In the process, I have grown more fully conscious than I imagined possible. For that, dear reader, I will always be grateful to you.