We Walk the Last Mile Alone

No one can save us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We must walk the path alone. – Buddha

Working with high school and college students can be both rewarding and frustrating. It’s rewarding because you’re seeing kids in a time of their lives when they are starting to figure out what it means to be adults. They are starting to think for themselves and question the things their parents taught them, even question the worldviews they have held to this point in their lives. You can open their minds to new ideas and watch the little explosion in their eyes when they discover some new idea that had never occurred to them before.

Unfortunately, this is also the time when kids start to feel like they probably know better than any adult who offers them advice.

I am extremely fortunate to have several very important role models to turn to when I need advice. Though I am nearing my 50th birthday, I still turn to my elders to bounce ideas and thoughts around, especially when a big decision looms. My three dads have always served me well: my biological Dad, Roger, my choice-dad Mike and my godfather Harry. They come from different backgrounds and experiences, but they are all rational, thoughtful and caring men who have never steered my wrong.

Of course, I didn’t always take their advice. I, too, was a teenager, and I vividly remember the time in my life when I was pretty sure most adults were a bit foolish and that I knew better than they did. Fortunately, I survived that era of stupidity and emerged on the other size understanding that when my dad, in particular, gave me advice, I should just take it, even if I really wanted to make a different choice.

I am now roughly the age that my father figures were at the time that I was casting a dubious eye… er, ear … on their words of wisdom, and I am getting a fair amount of payback. Students confide in me about “big” problems they are going through and I happily offer up sage counsel which is sure to get them through what they’re facing. Very much like me when I was their age, they choose their own paths and wind up making things worse.

Want to avoid pregnancy? Boy, is that an easy one! Stuck in a miserable job? Let me give you a reference to help land a better one! Money problems? Also easy. My dad is retired financial planner and taught me the ins and outs of budgets and finance from a very young age. Problems with parents? Having spent many years working with behavior units, I can also help navigate those choppy waters.

The problem is not offering the advice; rather the temptation to get frustrated when my advice isn’t followed. The same kids come back asking for help to get out of the mess that failing to follow my advice brought about. For example, a former student of mine who is now an adult with kids of his own still comes to me for advice quite often. He didn’t go to college because he got his high school girlfriend pregnant and had to start working to support her and their baby. He also cares for his aging and disabled mom, which is admirable, but it also means the financial deck is stacked against him. Twice I have helped him build a small nest egg that could be expanded with smart investments and twice he blew the money before it could be invested. The first time he spent it on “tricking out” his pickup truck, which he promptly totaled. The second time he spent it on an expanded vacation when his kids (he has two now) got bored with what was initially planned.

Unlike baseball, I have a two-strike policy. I will go out of my way to help you twice, but if you make the same mistake a third time you’re on your own. I’ll listen, but why continue to offer unheeded advice? Why go out of my way to help when it’s work for me and it doesn’t ultimately make a difference?

Well, there is a reason for this, and it has taken me a while to process it. You see, the person offering the advice is offering it from a different paradigm than the person listening. For example, I come from a lifetime foundation of sound financial advice, and have benefitted so many times that I am just programmed to be fiscally conservative. I plan way ahead. I have a college fund for my 9-year-old daughter, I have multiple investments for retirement and I carefully plan things out before spending money on non-essentials. Most people do not come from this perspective, and my young friend certainly does not. $1,000 is a LOT of money to him, whereas to me it’s a not worth a whole lot until it’s invested. My advice is absolutely the best, but he is simply not programmed to understand it.

By the time he realizes this, and he certainly will, it will probably be too late.

I’d be lying if I said I have always followed the sound advice I’ve been given, even when I am absolutely certain it’s the best way to go. The main reason why comes down to the quote from the Buddha which I put at the top of this post. When we’re getting advice we are in a safe place with someone who loves and cares about us. When it comes time to face down the demon that haunts us, that isn’t the case. We have to walk out on that limb all by ourselves and take a leap of faith that sometimes carries enormous consequences of its own.

In the moment of truth we in solitude, staring down what might be a very long, desolate mile…and that last mile, we always walk alone. In some cases, the prospect of facing down that desolation, even if the potential reward is great, can simply be too much for us to bear.

Embrace that, whether it’s within yourself of in those you try to help. Embrace, understand it, accept it, love it.


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