January 18 2013
To some people, the "Dear Abby" column might seem a bit outdated. Pauline Phillips began writing the famous advice column in 1956. But the advice offered, about how to deal with life's sticky situations, is just as relevant now as ever.
Abby - I mean Pauline - was very straightforward with her advice. While she was candid, she was always kind. She valued good character, deplored misconduct, emphasized etiquette, and responded to thousands of individual letters about dozens of topics: divorce, weddings, gossip, family, traditions, births, deaths, youth, old age, depression, relationships, parenthood, and many more.
One overarching theme of the column was personal responsibility. In a 1990 interview, Phillips explained to Larry King:
"There is always an answer, even if it's say, look, pal, you can't change anybody but yourself. You got to play the cards that are dealt you and you have to live with this, do the best you can. But you got to accept what fate deals you."
About gossip, she said,
"Those who know you already know the truth. And anyone who would base an opinion on unfounded rumors is not someone you would want as a friend."
On matters of etiquette, Phillips often cited Emily Post. On parenting, here was her advice:
"If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them, and half as much money."
About maturity, she said it is:
"The ability to stick with a job until it's finished, the ability to do a job without being supervised, the ability to carry money without spending it, and the ability to bear an injustice without wanting to get even."
Our culture today would do well to read and re-read some of Abby's advice. It's important to have self-discipline, to treat others with courtesy, and to hold ourselves to a high moral standard. Abby wasn't a prude; on at least one occasion she endorsed a woman modeling lingerie for her husband. But she had good sense, and encouraged people to get to know each other before clouding their judgments with sex. She wasn't moralizing for moralizing's sake; she meant her advice for her readers' good. Cultural conservatives could learn something from this when we talk about sex: Be candid, be welcoming, but be able to point out realistic tradeoffs and the responsibilities that come with freedom.
Another mark of the Dear Abby column, and perhaps one reason readers trusted her advice so much, was the humility with which the writer bore criticism. In additon to giving advice, she accepted and shared advice from many of her readers who could answer each other's questions.
Pauline Phillips did all this with flair. She was a witty writer, who always managed to communicate her thoughts in a succinct way. The world is a better place because of the practical advice she gave. I didn't agree with everything she wrote, but I appreciated her tone. Her columns actually make me nostalgic for a time when more people had high expectations for themselves and others - not in terms of achievement, but simply in terms of how to live one's life with dignity.
Fortunately, the column - since 2002 - has been taken over by Pauline Phillips' daughter, Jeanne Phillips, and can still be read daily. You can enjoy these columns in an online archive, dating back to 1995.
Thank you Pauline Phillips for the good advice and the superb column. Rest in peace.