Thursday, February 4, 2010

What is a Mentor?

If you look up "mentor" in the dictionary, you'll find it means a "trusted guide," a "provider of wise counsel," a "confidant."

In Greek mythology, the original Mentor was the teacher and faithful counselor, and old and trusted friend, to whom Odysseus entrusted his son Telemakhos when the king of Ithaca had to go off to fight the Trojan war. Images of mentors come in many shapes and sizes, from the grandmotherly fairy godmother to the elfin Yoda to the classic bearded Merlin. Myths, fairy tales, fantasy, and children's stories are filled with mentor figures: the spider woman in Native American lore; Gandalf in Tolkien; Charlotte in Charlotte's Web; Utnapishtim in the Gilgamesh epic; Shazam in Captain Marvel comics; the little old lady in Babar; Tiresias in Greek legend; the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit. And they have become increasingly popular in the media. Who hasn't heard of Tuesdays with Morrie, that bittersweet journal of a young man and his dying mentor?

A mentor may be either gender. They represent knowledge, reflection, insight, and wisdom. They offer understanding, compassion, strategy, and good advice. They engender trust, issue a challenge, provide encouragement, and offer the mentee a positive vision of themselves.

Mentors are role models. What kids see is what they'll be. What kind of role models do we want them to have? Again, it comes back to a matter of choice. Children learn by observing the people around them. Who do we want to populate their life? Childhood can be hard and full of disappointments, pain, loss, and disillusionment. Youth have choices to make that have lifelong implications. Today's children often develop self-doubt and a doubt in the world. We can't fully protect them from this. It's a natural part of the human experience. But what we can do is help them build up their immunity to doubt. We need to help them find hope. We have to help them develop their own character. Pop culture can't do that. Immature peers can't do that. But a mentor can.

Mentoring is about teaching the young "life craft," the skillful means to handle the challenges of everyday living. Yes, mentoring involves talking and perhaps teaching a skill. But at its core, intergenerational mentoring is a process through which older adults pass on to younger people a legacy of life lessons and, hopefully, wisdom. A mentor doesn't impose a doctrine or values on their mentee. A good mentor tries to make a young person more of themselves and helps them develop the ability to make difficult life choices. Mentoring is not about giving answers; it's about helping young people ask the right questions in their search for meaning.

Today, we live in a "professional" world. We don't seek out "elders." We seek out "licensed professionals" for help. My big question: is it working? From the beginning of human history, there's been something to connecting with another, older human being to learn how the world is. It's a relationship that isn't "just professional." In an alienated society, isn't that what we're all looking for? An older mentor who has earned their wisdom has something of value, and the mentor relationship may just be the best way to enable it to be effectively passed on.

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