Pass it on.
"In the middle of this road we call our life I found myself in a dark wood With no clear path through."
-- Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy
SEVEN CENTURIES AFTER DANTE TURNED TO THE ghost of Virgil to guide him out of the "dark wood" in which he had gotten lost, we are still hungry for mentors to show us the way. We may no longer think of ourselves as needing guides for the path from purgatory to paradise, but we remain eager to find any help possible negotiating life's many passages, particularly those into adulthood, parenthood, and old age. In the new and strange landscape of each of life's stages, we look around eagerly for folks with wisdom and experience: guides, scouts, and mentors who we hope will pilot us through the virgin territory of adolescence, marriage, our first job and baby, middle age, retirement, old age, and even death.
What, we want to ask them, will we need for these differing legs of life's journey? What wisdom, guidance, or inspiration can they offer us as we try to sort out and face the challenges of finding our own way?
This enduring appetite for mentors may explain the phenomenal success of Mitch Albom's runaway hit Tuesdays With Morrie (Doubleday, 1997), which has spent nearly 200 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and been made into a movie with Jack Lemmon. Albom's book recounts the story of the 14 Tuesdays he spent with his old sociology professor and dying friend, Morrie Schwartz, and lets readers listen in on a wondrous seminar in which Albom gets final lessons from Morrie on some of life's most important questions.
And why are so many of us interested in hearing Morrie's homilies on death, fear, aging, greed, marriage, family, society, forgiveness, and a meaningful life? "People see me as a bridge," Schwartz notes. "I'm not as alive as I used to be, but I'm not dead yet.... I'm on the last great journey here--and people want me to tell them what to pack."
Anna Quindlen has also learned something about our hunger for mentors and guides. A commencement speech that the bestselling novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist wrote for the graduates of Villanova University--but never got to give--was recently published as A Short Guide to a Happy Life (Random House, 2000) and soon found itself quasi-permanently ensconced on the New York Times bestseller list. Like the dying Morrie Schwartz, Quindlen reminds us that our time here is limited and that we ought not to squander our lives on unimportant things. "Get a life," she writes. "A real life, in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work."
Mentors have also been something of a rage recently at the movies. Last year's Finding Forrester cast Sean Connery as an aging and more-than-slightly-crotchety recluse who takes a brilliant-but-brooding inner city youngster (Rob Brown) under his wing, offering lessons about life, love, and the craft of writing. And in the eminently entertaining and deeply moving Billy Elliot, dance teacher Julie Walters guides the young Jamie Bell's pilgrimage from boxing to ballet.
OVER THE YEARS WE'VE SEEN LOTS OF COMING-OF-AGE STORIES about adolescent boys who find their way in the world thanks to some older man who steps into the role of mentor or stepdad. In Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, psychotherapist Robin Williams helps math genius Matt Damon navigate a safe course into adulthood, much as Judd Hirsch had done for troubled teen Timothy Hutton in Robert Redford's Ordinary People and Mel Gibson did for Nick Stahl in Gibson's The Man Without a Face.
We've also seen these male mentors and their boy-proteges work their bonding and inspirational magic in movies like Smoke, The Scent of a Woman, Dead Poets Society, Wonder Boys, and, of course, the first three editions of The Karate Kid. And most recently, the once incorrigible Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) of NYPD Blue has adopted his young partner, Danny Sorenson (Rick Schroder).
But girls, too, need mentors. Even though there have been fewer movies about the guides who help young women find their way, there have still been some great ones. Both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke won Oscars for their roles as teacher and protegee in Arthur Penn's film version of The Miracle Worker, as Maggie Smith did for her part as an Edinburgh school teacher who guides her girls into womanhood in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. And Julie Walters has gotten Oscar nominations for her role as a mentor in Billy Elliot and a protegee in Willy Russell's comedy, Educating Rita.
Meanwhile, women mentors are popping up on several popular TV shows. Providence's central character, Dr. Sydney Hansen (Melina Kanakarades), is always getting advice and direction from her deceased mother (Concetta Tomei), while Judging Amy's Amy Brenneman finds herself taking instructions from and following the example of mom Tyne Daly. And on The Gilmore Girls, Lorelai (Lauren Graham) is forever trying to make certain that teen daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) doesn't repeat all of Mom's mistakes--or invent too many new ones of her own.
Mentoring has long been an important part of our religious heritage. The ancient Hebrews believed it was possible to learn how to live a good, peaceful, and happy life. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament uses proverbs, psalms, and stories to teach successive generations of Israel's children the secrets of a virtuous and rewarding life. In the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon, biblical authors discuss and offer advice on a wide range of topics, passing on the accumulated wisdom and experience of those who have come before to anyone who has the humility, prudence, and good sense to listen.
And in the New Testament, Christ--who is the way, the truth, and the life--is revealed as the ultimate mentor. Each of us is called to be his protege or disciple. Like the apostles and all those who encountered him, everyone who hears the Good News is invited to a personal relationship with Christ and challenged to pick up their crosses or mats and come follow after him. In Christian ethics and spirituality we are not obliged to obey a specific set of rules or laws, but to imitate the example of Christ. As he tells his disciples, "Go and do likewise."
SO TOO, THE CATHOLIC CULT OF THE saints is all about mentoring and being mentored. For each of the saints on the Roman calendar offers a different model or way of imitating Christ. There are saints for students, teachers, nurses, physicians, patients, parents, social workers, adolescents, and travelers.
This pantheon of saints provides Catholics with a guide and inspiration for nearly every stage and way of life. We have saints who show us how to pray, preach, parent, make peace, or provide for the poor. We have virgins, martyrs, doctors, kings, clerics, beggars, lepers, missionaries, monks, and mothers. Each of these great souls not only encourages and inspires us, but also prays for and with us. In the mystical body of Christ we find ourselves in the company of countless "points of light"--patron saints and blessed souls who inflame our hearts, illuminate our path, and carry us upon their shoulders.
Which means, of course, that each of us has the vocation to be a mentor. For the life of every disciple casts a shadow across the lives of countless others, and each of our lives will either be an encouragement, inspiration, or guide for those who come after us. As Thomas Merton once said, we are all called to be saints. And so every one of us has the vocation to be a mentor and teacher to our children and grandchildren, and to the children and grandchildren of lots of other folks. For somewhere out there in a "dark wood" is a life waiting for the light and guidance that only our life can bring.
By PATRICK MCCORMICK, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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|Date:||Aug 1, 2001|
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