So, I have a confession to make. (I hope you’re sitting down.) When I need a feel-good read, my go-to genre is often romantic urban fantasy (as in, romance set in a modern big city, but with magic or psychic powers or angels or shapeshifters or somesuch). Ilona Andrews can do no wrong, that’s all I’m saying. 😊
Unfortunately, there’s a trope that’s littered throughout the genre (and probably standard romance too, but I don’t read it so I don’t know) that drives me absolutely batshit crazy. That trope goes like this. One of the main characters in the romantic pairing (who, to be clear, could be of any gender with any sexual identity; this is very equal opportunity bullshit) will have an internal dialog along the lines of:
I want to be with you, and I know or suspect that you want to be with me too. But, I’m flawed in some way, or currently involved in some problematic situation. Therefore I’m not good enough for you, or not an appropriate match for you, or would put you in danger. So, for your own good, I must drive you away or otherwise sabotage our relationship (usually before it even gets started).
Can we please, for the love of all that is good in the world, just knock this shit off? Rephrased in somewhat less flattering language, that thinking amounts to “I know what’s good for you better than you do, and therefore I must take over your decision-making so that I can make the right thing happen.”1
Some of you may recognize that I have written about this general theme before. However, there’s an underlying principle here that I didn’t go into so much, and I’m going to take this opportunity to get up on a soapbox about it for a while.
When I was in college, I took a class in Biomedical Ethics that really shaped how I think about decision-making. It wasn’t exactly the subject matter that stuck with me, though. Rather, we spent the course making arguments; in that class, the arguments were for or against various medical technologies or practices, but they could have been about anything.2 And, in every case, the teacher required us to base our argument on one or more of what she called the Three Major Moral Principles: Autonomy, Beneficence, and Justice.
Quickly, those principles are:
- Autonomy: Allow capable people to make decisions for themselves.
- Beneficence: Do the most good for the most people.
- Justice: Treat equals equally.
(Yes, there are gray areas and nuance in all of these. They’re still a really good place to start.)
The entire line of reasoning in the romance trope flies in the face of the principle of autonomy—the idea that fundamentally, people get to make their own damn decisions.3 Other people can make their own decisions about what to do with their life; they don’t need or probably even want my help.
And, if they do want my help, they’ll almost certainly ask for it. I don’t need to go around offering it unsolicited, and unsolicited advice is rarely welcomed in any case. “I must do this thing for you because you’re not capable of doing it or even seeing the need for it on your own” can be appropriate from a parent to a child—not so much in any sort of relationship of peers.
Of course, this idea is not just applicable to romance novels, or to romantic situations in real life. In any situation, I’ll do the most good, and cause the least harm, if I let everyone else make their own damn decisions.
In my role as a guide, both coach and sponsor, and even just in my role as a friend, I often hear questions that basically amount to “What do you think I should do?” My answer is always the same: “I’m not you, so what I think you should do doesn’t matter.” It’s not my job to decide if you should move, or whether or not you should start applying for new jobs, or whether or not you should end the relationship you’re in, or whether or not to reconcile with your parents or an estranged friend—answering those questions is your job.
My job (as a coach, or a sponsor, or even as a friend) is to help you figure out how to answer them yourself. And, since different people are different, you’ll probably answer them differently than I would—and that’s okay. Sometimes the question is rephrased as “Well, Brendon, what would you do?” That’s a question that I can answer, but the answer always comes with the same caveat as above: “I’m not you, so what you would/should do might be different.”
Rather than making other people’s decisions for them, for their own good, can we just work on empowering them to make their own decisions? I suspect everyone will be healthier and happier that way.
Okay, soapbox over. Thanks for indulging me.
- There’s also a heavy side order of “My needs and wants are unimportant in the face of this sacrifice I must make for the good of the world,” which makes for good story but not so much for good life advice. ↩
- Depressingly, the medical issues that were top of mind at the time are very similar to the ones that are top of mind today, more than 30 years later. 😢 ↩
- It also probably flies in the face of beneficence and justice, but that’s a story for another time. ↩