Ninjas and the Trojan Horse of Advice

I’ve been thinking about advice a lot lately. We are bombarded with advice nowadays, whether from TV commercials or news, internet ads, social media “influencers,” radio personalities, neighbors, family members, or even a friend’s ex-husband’s Roto Rooter guy Vince. Since pretty much every situation has more nuance than is visible to me, I find myself trying to avoid giving advice. Any time my brain starts to build a statement that includes “you should do X” or “you need to do Y” it raises a red flag for my internal editor (yes, I have one… he drinks, though) to take a closer look before releasing that statement into the wild.

I have come to realize that advice often includes so much baggage or subtext that the advice-giver may not have intended, such as judgement, stereotypes, unfair assumptions, or even overestimations of the recipient’s combat prowess. I have often been on the receiving end of advice that, while well-intentioned, ended up being of little to no benefit, or even causing harm. I have also been on the advice-giving end in situations that did not go well. As I typically do, I am going to discuss this in the context of a personal experience.

The Trojan Horse

You can look this one up on your own if you need to. I could summarize this reference here but I really feel it is so well understood that it is not necessary. So, I’m gonna go ahead and skip it.

It’s my blog. I’ll do what I want.


I’m a recovering Catholic. I was an altar server back when they were called altar boys because girls were not allowed to do it (which changed, at least at my parish I grew up in, toward the end of my tenure). For those who are not familiar, altar servers help the priest before/during/after mass (typical Sunday services) and other services (some services are not technically masses). These duties include lighting the proper candles before the service and extinguishing them after the service. It also involved things like fetching various objects for the priest in during the service. I was an altar server from the age of twelve (I think) until I was eighteen (I think). I actually enjoyed it for a long time.

I want to pause here for a moment to share that, although I have shared that I have a lot of childhood trauma, and I now share that I spent a lot of time around Catholic clergy (priests, etc.), I was not a victim of the abuse that has been so well documented. In general, my experiences with the clergy have been positive ones. That said, the fact that I feel it is important for me to stress this is not a good thing as far as the Catholic Church is concerned. Understatements are fun, yeah?

I believe it was the Easter Vigil (the service held the Saturday evening prior to Easter Sunday), late in my altar server career. There were four altar servers for important services like this, and we each had some special duties to perform. I was what we called the Master of Ceremonies, which generally meant that I would be focusing on the most visible duties like holding the prayer book for the priest during key parts of the service. As it was a special service, I and my fellow altar servers were wearing red cassocks rather than out typical black ones we used for ordinary masses.

There was a point during this service all lights and candles in the church were extinguished and the only light came from a fire in what you may call a Holy Hibachi that the priest was blessing and which would be used to light the special Paschal Candle for the coming holy year. The parish photographer took a gorgeous photo of this showing just Father Dan, the flame, and me holing the book for Father Dan with everything else in total darkness. I have no idea where that picture went or I would include it here.

I’m realizing that most of the details above aren’t really important to this story. But they are helping me paint the picture again in my mind, so I’m gonna go with it. It’s my blog. I’ll do what I want.


Just as we were about to start the procession into the church that marked the beginning of the service, Scott, one of my fellow altar servers, who was probably at least 6 feet 2 inches tall, leaned down to me, and said, in a grave, insistent voice, “If you ever fight a ninja, don’t pull down his mask. He’s got a blade in his mouth he will spit at you and kill you.” Having dispensed this profound wisdom, he then nodded to himself, as though a sacred duty had been discharged.

This exchange, as you might expect, raised several questions.

  • How did Scott come by this valuable information?
  • Was there a ninja problem in or around Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Nashua, NH that I was unaware of at the time?
  • Given what I knew of ninjas as deadly assassins, what made Scott think I would be alive long enough in a ninja fight to take an action like pulling down my adversary’s mask?
  • Did this advice apply to The Hamburglar as well? Different style of mask, but still, better safe than sorry, yeah?
  • [stammering sounds of starting but not finishing any words] What?

I was not able to ask Scott any of these questions because the service started immediately after he finished, and I think this was my last experience as an altar server. I forgot to ask him after the service and I never saw him again. I hope Scott had the wherewithal to heed his own advice and avoided this great blunder in all of his own ninja fights.

I am not sure why this particular memory has stuck with me for all these years. It could be that it was the only direct advice I ever received on ninja fighting. It could be the timing of the advice. It could be a lot of things. But whatever, the reason, his heart or his shoes, he stood there on Christmas Eve hating the Whos… Note to self: Delete this last sentence before you publish.

Assumptions and judgements

No matter how hard we may try to avoid it or even deny it, advice we give is pretty much always built upon a foundation of assumptions and/or judgements we are making about the recipient(s) of our advice. We may do some work to turn at least some of these into reasons to justify to ourselves that we should be giving the advice, but I don’t feel that any advice can be totally assumption-free or judgement-free. Assumption and Judgement are pretty much always there, hidden within advice, even if we can’t see them. You looked up the Trojan Horse already, yeah? Didn’t want to assume.

Here are some assumptions and judgements, based on my own experiences, that can be problematic during the advice-giving-receiving process.

  • The recipient is “other” in some way and therefore needs to take action to fix or overcome that otherness.
    • There are SO MANY examples that fit here. And SO MANY of them involve folks with power slapping labels on folks without power and then blaming the labelled for their problems. The main thing I try to think it about is what makes me think my would-be advice recipient needs advice? Some common judgement pitfalls here are:
      • Anyone with less money than we have is lazy and just needs to work harder.
      • Anyone with a mental health challenge is weak and just needs to suck it up.
      • Anyone that is fatter than we are is unhealthy.
  • The recipient has reason to give a shit what the advice-giver has to say.
    • I, for one, summarily dismiss any “advice” from folks who claim to be “wellness” experts or extoll how they or their products/services are endorsed by Goop.
    • The fact that Dr. Oz is a cardiac surgeon makes it SO MUCH WORSE that he spreads health misinformation since he KNOWS it is bullshit but spreads it anyway. The average moron on TikTok or Instagram can claim at least some amount of ignorance here. Dr. Oz can’t.
  • The recipient is capable of taking advice at this time.
    • I have learned through experience that when my oldest daughter storms into her bedroom and slams her door, choosing this moment to give her advice on any topic is not a fruitful endeavor.
    • Someone who is actually on fire is unlikely to be able to take advice on any topic.
  • The advice is constructive, new information to the receiver.
    • A depressed person doesn’t need you to tell them to keep their chin up, upper lip stiff, hopes up, or any other vapid bullshit. We have heard it all before. It is not new. It is not helpful.
    • A fat person doesn’t need you telling them what to eat or not eat or to be reminded that they don’t look like you. We have heard it all before. It is not new. It is not helpful.
  • The recipient will see the advice as a well-intentioned attempt on the advice-giver’s part to be helpful.
    • All of the above items in this list make it VERY difficult to provide meaningful, helpful, well-timed advice that will actually have a positive effect on the recipient.
    • This often leads to friction between the advice-giver and the recipient, culminating in an exasperated, “I’m just trying to help!”

Applying assumptions and judgements to Scott

  • The recipient is “other” in some way and therefore needs to take action to fix or overcome that otherness.
    • This particular pitfall, while it applies with tremendous frequency at large, does not apply well to my example with Scott. But I chose the example with Scott anyway because it is funnier than some of my other options. It’s my blog. I’ll do what I want.
  • The recipient has reason to give a shit what the advice-giver has to say.
    • I remember Scott as a decent fellow. Still, he had provided no prior reason as to why his advice on tactical decisions for fighting ninjas should carry any weight. So, Scott literally missed the Mark on this one.
  • The recipient is capable of taking advice at this time.
    • I this case, I was emotionally just a little nervous as I was about to enter a church full of hundreds of people and I had duties that were highly visible. But I wasn’t in a highly emotional state that would have prevented me from receiving advice. So, I guess Scott got this one.
  • The advice is constructive, new information to the receiver.
    • I was not already aware of the particular danger in attempting to unmask a ninja (during combat or even during more mundane activities like drinking pina coladas or getting caught in the rain).
    • I had never thought about how I would fight a ninja in general, much less pulling down the mask of said ninja as a worthwhile combat tactic, so I’m tempted to give this one to Scott.
    • However, the constructiveness of this advice presupposes I had the necessary reflexes, attributes, skills, and/or equipment that would allow me to survive a ninja fight long enough to take ANY action whatsoever (I am not counting bleeding, dying, etc., as actions on my part).
    • Given that, I will give Scott only partial credit here.
      • This event with Scott took place before the Internet took off so there was not a “How to survive a ninja attack” resource easily at hand. I looked up “How to survive a ninja attack” on the Internet just now and the results were more entertaining (and numerous) than I expected.
      • This is more of a testimonial than advice, so I think I’m good.
  • The recipient will see the advice as a well-intentioned attempt on the advice-giver’s part to be helpful.
    • Since, as I have shared above, Scott was a decent fellow, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. I have no reason he expected me to take this advice poorly, particularly when there was at least some outside chance that it could save my life. Thank you, Scott.

Wrapping Up

Giving advice has consequences that should not be taken lightly by either the advice-giver or the recipient. Advice can change lives, but not always for the better. It is not hyperbole to say that there are people who are dead today because someone that had no business giving advice did so anyway and people believed them. If you find yourself tempted to give advice, take my advice, and think long and hard before you do.

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