MENTOR - Steve Daugherty
Odysseus had to leave town for a long time, and his boy Telemachus would need more than babysitting while he was away. His son would need a guide, a wisdom figure to impart to the young man what was required to preserve a somewhat uninterrupted journey to adulthood. So Odysseus went to a name since proven to be one of the most enduring brands of all time, and hired a guy named Mentor. You and I have never prayed for a Telemachus.
By my thirties my longing for things was giving way to a longing for a wisdom figure; A guru, a sage, a wizard. Someone who could affirm my journey or correct it. Someone who could figuratively give me a little drawstring bag of coins, teach me how to take down a troll. I don’t fault my father for not being a mentor. And why would I? We have the titles father and mentor because they’re different roles. But I confess neither of the roles seemed filled to my soul’s satisfaction, and the longing for a mentor was only getting stronger. For years I expressed this longing to my wife, fantasizing about having an older man in my life that could speak into me more deeply than anyone ever had. I never wished for the guidance of an older woman, which may have been both sexist and a subtle criticism of my father after all. It may have simply been because I’d always had a doting grandmother but had lost my grandfathers so early in life I’ve no memory of them.
I tried not to be weird about it, but I thought about finding a mentor somewhat constantly. I’d try to hide my tears every time I watched Mr. Miyagi train Daniel, or Rafiki explain to Simba what to do with the past. It would sneak up on me. I even got weepy when I considered the old, wise librarian in The Never Ending Story actually gave Sebastian that book. I was happy for that lonely kid when the princess told him at the end what to do with his life.
It was a most interesting time in my life when Bart showed up.
Bart was new to our church but not so much to earth. His white beard suggested a bit of magic. His eyes were sunken but full of life. His laugh was of a variety developed through years of not worrying about how your laugh sounds. He was in his late sixties, and for reasons I couldn’t understand, he took an immediate interest in me, my teaching, my work. He gushed praise. He asked me questions and cupped my shoulder with his hand. He told me he prayed for me. Over the first couple of months of knowing Bart, I had to work hard not to jump to any conclusions, but in my defense Odysseus had been off to war for a long time. Had God finally answered my prayers and sent a mentor to me?
One evening I told my wife about Bart. My language and my tone were boyish I think. “This could be the one,” I said. “What do I do, like officially ask him?” I said.
I’m in my forties now, and I think I assess clearly that my whole culture is burdened with an absentee wisdom figure epidemic. Perhaps I am projecting, and I concede cultural diagnoses are like pants—everyone has a pair. But I suspect most readers will agree to this point that we’d all benefit from a personal Gandalf. And I do see many doing the work of imparting deeper human knowledge to anyone wiling to admit their cup is shiny but empty. But generally speaking, Telemachus is raising himself. And we know it.
Most of the folks standing at our trailheads are just selling speculative maps. Listen to who guides us, and you may note that they count on us sitting unreflectively at their feet despite their having never really learned how to walk. We prop up foolishness so long as the bearer is pretty or rich. We attach ourselves to folks who may not know how to live deeply, but know how to live in denial of our chronically maladjusted society—or even how to make it worse.
But from who else would we take our cues in a culture that has equated domination with morality, where toxic definitions of power are no longer exorcised but encouraged, where tribalism is uncritically accepted as the only available unity, where bending swords into plowshares is resisted because sword-swinging warriors are the true citizens while gardeners are impotent hobbyists? Maybe I am bordering on cynicism, but hear me out; I’m diagnosing that a genuine wisdom figure cannot easily stand at the center of this ethos, guiding us. The very fact we are able to push them to the edges proves they weren’t worthy of being heard in the first place, right? They lacked a winner’s grit, so good riddance. In this environment the true wisdom figure, the cave dwelling Obi Wans or imprisoned Nelson Mandelas might be quoted for their marginality but cannot be submitted to. And so we miss out on their guidance.
We miss their stories of simplicity and thoughtfulness, of transcended pain, their wounds fermented into the carafes of wisdom enjoyed outside the party that offers little more than the boxed shit. These folks aren’t often on TV, don’t have five-year plans, and rarely hold seminars. They may be the men and women in our midst contented to seem ill-equipped to help anybody win anything. They are those who can show us who we are despite initially seeming to our programming to be the very ones like whom we don’t want to turn out to be. I’m saying the peacemakers, the awakened ones, those unloved lovers, might be people whose way breaks the very thing our own lives are made gaunt trying to hold together. I admit we already know this latent mentor archetype so deeply the trope makes us roll our eyes: the one whom we seek is the very one we’re willfully overlooking. The stone the builders rejected turns out to be the most important brick in the wall and all that. But perhaps this serves my precise point; we’ve stopped applying wisdom because we done heard about it already. How else could a people connected to so much information elect a win-it-all billionaire gameshow host who sees other humans as rungs on a ladder, and then puzzle over the sociological cancer ravaging us afterward?
After a couple of months Bart asked to schedule time with me. He said he wanted to pitch me something he felt was important, and was sure I’d agree.
Weeks later I remember I took a deep breath before the meeting, having already told my wife that Bart was about to pop the question. You know, the mentor-mentee proposal. Bart was nervous, a vibe I’d not gotten from him to this point.
“I’ve been thinking about what you do, and how special I think you are to the people you lead, about the burden you carry in being a spiritual leader,” Bart said. “And I have been thinking about my role in that.”
Now I was nervous. Bart continued.
“And I certainly don’t want to add to your already-full plate, but I feel like the Lord is leading me to this, odd as this may seem for you.” Bart swallowed and smiled. “I was wondering, Steve, if you would be my mentor.”
It took me about four months to not feel angry about this. As Foy Vance wisely put it, Baby, hope deals the hardest blows. And damn it blowed. It didn’t help that when Bart discovered I didn’t hold Adam and Eve as necessary historical figures or that there wasn’t probably a stegosaur stall on the Ark, he left our church, with prejudice. It would be some time before I realized the old man was looking for a wisdom figure too, and was so acutely aware of a deficit that he’d gone all in with me, an equally deficient man less than half his age.
I’m approaching the inescapable conclusion that I may be counted among an unqualified lot who’s discovering, humbly, they may have been given stewardship of a better baton to pass. Not because I’m all that sharp, but because it seems clear to me that a better way is a different way, rather than merely making forced improvements on the current one. In a society of baby geese following whatever is taller, there’s a real rethink on the table about how we call forth the depths of our shared humanity, true community, empathy and unity, etc., and whether it’s better to try and do so from a cultural stage, fighting to maintain a voice and a place and a channel and the right to and all that. Or, do we do it best out on the edges, to be discovered by those who’ve walked out. Are wisdom figures hosts or guests?
In any case, you and I have to be mindful of what we practice. Because we might be training unawares to become the wisdom figures the world needs, and you get good at what you practice. And as Fr. Richard Rohr reminds, the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better, so it’s a life of peace that teaches peace. It’s a life of love that loves. As the old stories insist, deep calls to deep, and it’s hard work to sink down, slow down, and be who we’ve needed. What choice do we have if we’re to return to our better humanity, but to accept true wisdom wherever we find it, take our blows, and in the next decades be the answer to our own questions.
Steve Daugherty is an ordained minister, award-winning storyteller, and author hailing from the Research Triangle NC with his wife Kristi and three children. Make his interests yours at stevedaugherty.net