The most annoying advice I’ve heard in British history was spouted by Van Morrison on his live album “A Night in San Francisco”.
He’s jamming, which I believe is the word, with Jimmy Witherspoon, on the medley, “When Will I Become a Man?” (Mmmm, nice.)
“Hey Van”, drawls the ancient Jimmy, sounding like an exhausted oracle of Delphi who’s run out of ideas, “Please tell me, When do I become a Man?”
Quick as a whip, Van retorts, “It’s up to you”.
A stupid question, maybe. And an equally stupid answer?
Or the whole of Western existential philosophy summed up in two lines?
Which is it?
Well, it’s up to you.
Over the years, Van’s voice responds in my head to answer the most difficult and nebulous questions I’ve had cause to ask myself. Should I change jobs? Move house? Relocate? Pay off the mortgage or invest that lump sum I’ve built? Fire that underperforming employee? The more difficult the question, the more the answer echoes back. “It’s up to you”.
The most recent example I have is today when I postulated to myself, “If I was sitting in the pub with a good mate, and he laid out his financial circumstances as being exactly the same as my own, and asked me whether he should retire or look for a job, what would I advise him?”
The honest answer was that I’d tell him, under those specific circumstances, and taking into account those monetary considerations, “It’s up to you”.
But that’s not what I want to hear! Can’t someone tell me, exactly, what to do? Should I commit to the retired life and content myself with it? Or should I make a proper effort to get back into work? I’m stuck, unable to find the answer within myself. I’m working hard to appreciate what I’ve got, but I’d be lying to myself if I was to say I didn’t miss some aspects of the working life and the security of a hefty salary package arriving in my bank account every month. I feel that contentment will only descend once I make a decision and stick to it, really commit to it, whether that’s retiring completely or really making an effort to find paid employment. It’s a big decision though, a life changing decision and I want some help and advice. Can’t a trusted friend who knows me and my situation just tell me exactly what I should do?
No. Of course not. They never can and they never will. Oh, people close to you can tell you very quickly and decisively that your views are wrong and misguided over the question of quantitative easing, but ask them if you should take a new job in Dubai and see what they say. They just reflect back, as good friends do, your indecision. The bigger your doubt, the more they hand it back to you to sort out. This, incidentally, is what good counsellors do.
I once noted down a cracking quote I read about professional counselling. It came from a patient of Sheldon Kopp, recounted in his book “If You Meet The Buddha on the Road, Kill Him”:
“I came to therapy hoping to receive butter for the bread of life. Instead, at the end, I emerged with a pail of sour milk, a churn, and instructions on how to use them.”
Anxious, depressed, indecisive, unhappy, troubled? Or just wondering whether to enjoy retirement or return to paid employment? Take responsibility for the question and make a decision. You know where the answer to your problems is going to come from, but you will have to do the work. Oh, and please bear in mind, even at the end of it, you still might not reach enlightenment.
Nevertheless, it’s a fact that the more effort you put in to something, the more you will get back out. This is a truth that applies as much to thought processes and decision making as anything else. It seems to be a statement of the bleedin’ obvious that nobody can make decisions on the really big personal questions in life other than yourself. Unfortunately we live in a culture where so many factors are framed to be the responsibility of someone else that it’s very easy to expect, or even demand, answers from elsewhere. But, in the end, it’s up to you.