Some have a gift for intelligent empathy, a quality necessary for the maintenance of friendship. Too much understanding and sympathy, and we risk distrust and resentment. Too little and our friend will suspect indifference. Cloying or cold, which will it be? Either way, advice, a dangerous commodity, must be avoided at all costs. Share experience, strength and hope, but never a detailed list of instructions.
A friend is going through a rough patch, not unlike experiences of my own. It’s interesting to recognize how selfish the wish to help can be. Few roles are more seductive than being an authority, an expert. We wish to be judged only by our finest moments, those rare wise times, and it’s easy to forget how often we have resented well-intentioned counseling – call it meddling. On this date, March 5, in 1776, Dr. Johnson writes in a letter to Boswell:
“I am very sorry that your melancholy should return, and should be sorry likewise if it could have no relief but from my company. My counsel you may have when you are pleased to require it; but of my company you cannot in the next month have much, for Mr. Thrale will take me to Italy, he says, on the first of April.”
This is the fatherly Johnson, wishing to care for his wayward son. The context involves Johnson’s friend Lord Hailes, and you can read the details in Boswell’s Life. Johnson expressed his understanding of the situation and his concern for Boswell, but carefully distances himself. Johnson has a life beyond Boswell. He continues:
“Let me warn you very earnestly against scruples. I am glad that you are reconciled to your settlement, and think it a great honour to have shaken Lord Hailes’s opinion of entails. Do not, however, hope wholly to reason away your troubles; do not feed them with attention, and they will die imperceptibly away. Fix your thoughts upon your business, fill your intervals with company, and sunshine will again break in upon your mind.”
Johnson’s affection for his friend is tempered by a recognition of his own limitations. Even a father can’t fix everything. And we recognize that Johnson is repeating a pep talk he has often given himself. The line about sunshine is beautiful. He even suggests a way to hasten its arrival:
“If you will come to me, you must come very quickly, and even then I know not but we may scour the country together, for I have a mind to see Oxford and Lichfield before I set out on this long journey.”