You need to know two things about me. Number one, I am a firstborn in a family with four younger brothers. Number two, until I got almost to high school I usually thought I had the right answer. About everything. I remember the first time I did not have an answer to a question. One summer, I went to vacation bible school at St. John A.M.E. Zion Church with one of my brothers. I have mostly good memories of the experience, I may have even known some of the children who were there from my first two years of grade school at Rockdale Elementary. By that summer, I had spent a few years at Annunciation, a Catholic school, where I did well in school, all As except for one in handwriting, which although it broke my streak, I did not fret because after all, it was just handwriting.
Towards the end of the week at bible school, the teacher asked the class who could recite the Twenty-third Psalm. Given the fact I attended a Catholic school that had religion classes at least weekly, with the occasional weekday mass added in, I assumed I would have the answer to any religious question they threw at me.
Hands flew up—these kids knew the answer and I just sat there, without a single idea about what words were in that psalm. I looked over at my brother but he did not seem at all bothered by not knowing the answer. The teacher called on one of the children, who began in an enthusiastic, yet properly pious voice, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
I had no clue and was annoyed, not spiritually embarrassed; I did not know the answer. I remember later asking myself what was the point of going to Catholic school if I could not answer this basic question that the other children knew. Eventually I learned the psalm, but not knowing the answer bothered me for some time.
I must have pushed that incident to the back of my mind or seen it as anomaly, because for most of grade school, I still thought I was always right. Even if my opinion varied from my parents, I still kind of wondered if maybe I had some insight they had not thought about. I certainly wasn’t going to challenge them, I just thought quietly, they just don’t know yet, and I left it at that. It was not until my forties when I told them how I thought as a child. My father chuckled, and my mother said, “So you really thought you were right about everything?”
“Yes, but I wasn’t going to argue with you.”
She shook her head and laughed, “It must really be something to go through life with that kind of confidence.”
The truth is, most of my confidence comes from the support of my parents and family.
I grew up with opinions about everything, willing to listen, but still ready to talk, offer advice, and stand my ground when I felt strongly about something. So, a while ago, I looked at the current state of the world, I saw foolishness that made no sense to me, and I toyed with the idea of an advice column, or maybe a podcast, where I could dispense my advice to those who needed it.
There was only one problem—what if no one wanted it? I even had an answer for that question—instead of waiting for people to ask for my advice, I’d make up the questions and provide answers. Advice you did not ask for (but probably needed and just did not know.)
But I am older, and hopefully a little wiser. So instead of deciding where people need advice, I am working on listening. Listening so I understand where they are coming from, not because I am anticipating my response. Listening because maybe I can learn something from their questions and perspectives. Listening because sometimes the first thing that comes out of my mouth is not the problem I am wrestling with, and sometimes asking more questions, rather than moving to a response right away, is the only way for me to get to the root of an issue. Maybe it is that way for you too.
There might always be that small part of me that is inclined to offer advice if asked—it’s the big sister, school-loving child in me. If you really want to know, I’ll try to help, and not even charge you five cents like Lucy did in Charlie Brown. I’m just shifting my default to more listening and asking questions, before I settle on a final answer.