“I do not make a habit of paying attention to Lent, but its annual arrival is unmissable because Ash Wednesday is so savvy with its ashy-forehead advertising campaign. And I have enough relatives who do pay attention to it and adhere to it that I am also inevitably made aware of what each of them has chosen to give up for the season of Lent. The last time I personally thought seriously about Lent was when I was nine years old, and my least favorite teacher at my elementary school asked me what I had given up. I said sex. At that age, giving up sex was a piece of cake. This year, I decided to partake in Lent again. I did not, however, give up sex. That would no longer be a piece of cake. 

What I did give up was no picnic, either. I decided to stop giving advice. 

Unless, that is, someone asked me explicitly for my opinion, then I could go nuts with guidance. Funny thing about that: people very rarely ask. Maybe that’s because everyone else is always so eager to offer.

If people want something, anything, from you—advice, love, sex, friendship, time—they’ll find a way to let you know. So, I just stopped.

It’s hard not to give advice. It’s hard to sit with a friend and listen to them recount a difficulty they are experiencing and to have no recourse beyond your listening ability. When you’re not offering a solution or thinking about the solution you’re about to offer, there is nothing to do but focus on what the person in front of you is saying, focus on the pain and confusion and fear they are expressing and know that you can’t take it away, can’t be the hero rushing in to fix everything. That it is not about you. 

It is about bearing witness to someone else’s experience, which may be the greatest gift we can give each other. This is another way of holding space for people. It sounds simple. It is not. The impulse is to interrupt in the name of offering assistance, but in actuality this is only in the name of alleviating your own discomfort, in fulfilling your own desire to be needed and appreciated, and, in the process, taking away the other person’s agency. This is not bearing witness. This is bearing a responsibility that is not yours to bear.

Which is why it is also liberating not to give advice. Forget about yourself. You are not taking a test. You don’t have to know the answer! I got a lot better at bearing witness, and in the silence, in the space I was holding but not filling, my friends could fill in their own gaps, find their own answers. 

And if they didn’t, I discovered that asking an extremely pointed question is a great way to offer advice on the sly. The deliberate inquiry was my Lenten loophole. 

Writing is another exercise in humility. When you write, you come face-to-face with all the things you do not know, which is most everything. When this happens, a writer abandons the solitude of their desk, opens the door, and finds the people who do know the latest thing they’ve realized they do not. It’s awesome. 

Good writing requires wide-open listening. This has long been my writing philosophy, but Lent, and the people I interviewed for this book, taught me it’s also an important life philosophy.

One of the first things Dr. Sarah Bamford Seidelmann told me was that “the best healers, no matter where they’re working, whether they’re a Reiki person or an acupuncturist or a doctor or a neurosurgeon or a therapist, they’re listening. And I mean they’re sensing, and that’s really at its essence what shamanism is.” 

Every shaman, empath, and astrologer I have spoken to brings up listening, just that verb, that action, how vital, how sacred, the act of listening is. What they are trying to get me to understand is that their title doesn’t matter: they are listeners. It’s what Andrea and Reesha were telling me. I just wasn’t listening yet.

Whenever I describe this book to people, that I’m writing about psychics and shamans, there is a chance their eyes will darken. They believe all psychics scam people. They think all shamans lead cults. They have no interest in these ideas or any book that is the end result of such an examination.

Being a wide-open listener as a writer or just as a “lifer” means being wide-open to criticism and doubt, not to internalize and hold me back but as facts of life. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s criticism!

An acquaintance and her husband once took a spontaneous trip to Nantucket. All week, whenever they were deciding what to do next, they chose the option they knew the least about. They started calling these choices “Fuck it, Nantucket.” It has remained a shorthand between them for overwhelming moments. That’s how I’ve come to view reactions to this book. Fuck it, Nantucket is a shorthand for what Michelle, the master intuitive and healer from Hawaii I interviewed, was trying to show me, that living out of my alignment and in fear or with my ego is exhausting and unproductive and fails to serve a meaningful purpose.

That the secret is learning, somehow, to listen, remain open, and not give a [expletive] all at the same time.”

Excerpted from Future Perfect: A Skeptic’s Search for an Honest Mystic by Victoria Loustalot. © 2019 Published by Little A, January 1, 2019. All Rights Reserved.