The power of a great mentor
Last week I managed the six-day creativity reading and writing the women’s seminar on “Identity and (Dis) Belonging” that I have been teaching every summer for four years. Usually, we gather for the week on the grounds of St. John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastic community located on the shores of a lake in central Minnesota; this year, it all happened virtually. Course participants do close readings and analyzes of writers ’personal essays in cultures, and delve deep into their own individual, family, and community narrative stories, working on a small piece of creative writing.
Each year, a week proves to be emotionally draining and physically draining. When we closed on Saturday, someone remarked that part of what made the seminar so meaningful was the unexpected element of mentoring: how, through my words and actions, I showed them how to bring their full presence to the. work, each other and challenge each other. I wasn’t consciously aware of doing that, but it left me thinking in the next few days about what makes a good mentor.
In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, Mentor was the old man whom Odysseus asked to care for his son Telemachus when he went to war. But in the story, it is the work of the Greek goddess Athena that gives meaning to how the word “mentor” is understood today. He disguises himself as the old man and goes to Telemachus to advise him on what to do for his family.
Today, mentoring takes many forms – from formal company programs established in the United States in the 1970s to global training structures for coaching and mentoring. But regardless of how one is mentored, it seems to be a much-needed and secular human relationship, expressed in literature, religious texts, and popular culture.
Life didn’t always put me directly in the line of the exact mentor I needed at a given moment. But since 13 years ago, when a dear friend of my mother pulled me aside and gave me a little book on the transition from childhood to childhood, I can call people who have influenced marked my way to see the world, taught me rules about life, nurtured my potential, and believed in myself more than I was able to believe in myself. These are names and faces that I could never forget. Every mentoring relationship is different, yet I think mentoring, when honored and taken seriously, is always a mutually beneficial and enlightening experience.
One of my favorite paintings on the subject is “The infancy of Christ”(C1620) by the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst. It is a scene of the baby Jesus with his father Joseph, the carpenter who taught him the trade. It is dark at night and Jesus, dressed in a bright red robe, is leaning on the table and holding a lighted candle so that old Joseph can work. Two whispering angels, who look like children themselves, stand at the bottom and indicate father and son, apprentice and teacher. The painting is rich in symbolism and religious implications. But it also highlights some often underestimated aspects of the mentor-mentor relationship.
The candle creates one chiaroscuro effect, flashing a bright splendor on the faces of Joseph and Jesus. It reveals several things: that the young boy should focus on the old man’s face rather than on his work, and that he should look at him with admiration and adoration. There is more to the advice than to a transmission of skills or ideas. There is also a certain degree of looking at the face of the mentor, symbolic of his character. The mentors who have had the most profound effect on my life have been the ones whose character traits I have respected and wanted to emulate, beyond any advice they have given.
Joseph, for his part, uses the light of Jesus to continue to focus on his craft. I think part of the mutual gift in the mentor-mentor relationship is that the mentor’s presence in our lives holds a light for our work and for our own presence, inviting us to look more closely at what we do and how we do it – maybe even exceeding what we imagine is the limit of our own growth and development. In this sense mentoring is a mutual calling. Knowing the more complete narrative in the Christian tradition, I am aware that both the characters in the picture contain the role of the one who teaches and the one who is taught. But these roles manifest themselves in their lives at different times.
The angels in the background remind me of the role of the goddess Athena in the classic role of mentor. The work of advising, guiding and teaching someone in every trace of the journey of their life has an element of sacredness. Being trusted and invited into someone’s life is an intimate act that we often take for granted, focusing sometimes more on the status that allows us to be the mentor, rather than on the transformative power that mentoring holds for a ‘ another life.
I look at oil in the late 19th century opera “The Class of Women’s Lives” (c1879) by American illustrator Alice Barber Stephens. It was her first published image, and it was born out of her petition – along with other female artists – for women to be allowed to attend life drawing classes, at a time when she was considered a ‘ inappropriate activity for and respectable women. In this image, a class of female artists are sitting or standing, gathered around a female model on a stage. The women are stacked in the room and also at ease with each other, concentrating on the painting or staring from behind each other’s canvas. They fought for a space where they could develop their skills. Only by their presence do they encourage each other.
It makes me reconsider the class of women I met last week. They ranged in age from the mid-twenties to the mid-sixties, in culture, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation. I think how in the short span of six days they read quickly, how they listened patiently and attentively to each other’s stories and introduced themselves to each other’s writing, challenging each other to acknowledge their fears, to be courageous in their work and, in parallel, in their lives.
I remember that mentoring can happen in all directions, both horizontally and vertically, across age gaps and cultures and socioeconomic status, so no matter how “we come”, we never exceed our ability. to learn from each other. I remember that you never know who may live next to you, who offers you both what you know you need and what you may not even be able to see you need. After all, in this life, aren’t we all invited to help each other on our path?
Enuma Okoro is a columnist for FT Life & Arts
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