In Praise of Mentors
May we meet them…May we be them…
In 2017 I lost two mentors who passed away seemingly before their time. I could not have predicted that their lives would be cut short when I looked to them as guides, but I also can't help but think that something in me may have known to “pay attention” because they would not be here long.
Like many of life’s best teachers, David was more of an adversary than a friend when I first met him. I could not believe how different he was to me… but this was the exact reason I was so intrigued by him.
I met him one night at a Hong Kong Stories workshop—I had just learned I had a knack for storytelling and I wanted to hone my abilities, so I went to a workshop he hosted in the city. There were storytellers of all skill-levels including a woman who had never tried storytelling and whose English was still developing. Needless to say, her story was nearly impossible to understand and while I like to think I may have been more compassionate toward her, David was ruthless. He ripped her story apart in front of everyone and made her teary-eyed and ashamed. I felt so badly for her that I texted her to apologize for his actions (and funny enough we too became friends after that…)
I left wondering, “How could you be so insensitive to someone who is just trying their best?” But while pondering that, it actually brought me back to a piece of criticism I received years before basically stating I was “very good at comforting people, but not very good at challenging them”… I never forgot that feedback, and soon realized that David was great at challenging people. Could he be someone I could learn that from?
The next few months I made an effort to get to know David better through private conversations and public events. He had a way of taking me under his wing in both paternal and fraternal manners—mentoring me, but to my surprise, never patronizing me. I enjoyed his ability to craft logical arguments, so we friendly-debated many topics: the role of science in society, the direction leadership should come from, the proper ways to sustain a community—and during each debate he stated his opinion, but also patiently allowed me to state mine as well. Neither of us really convinced one another of the opposite viewpoint, but the debates were really helpful for each of us to fine-tune what we believed... and maybe wiggle a bit into grayer territories when necessary.
When I learned he was suffering from ALS, I was saddened, but through speaking with him about his disease he continued to mentor me without even knowing it. We talked candidly about what it felt like to be dying and how the hardest part was actually managing everyone else’s feelings about it. He was honest about his fears and lack of fears and he encouraged me to always listen to people’s reality and not to project my own fears about their condition. He thanked me for being real with him and not pretending there was nothing wrong, because it’s important to let people tell you how they feel without you trying to ‘make them feel better’. I will never forget that.
I will also never forget that his compliment to me when I asked him if he had any “lists” that he wanted to cross off before he died. “You and I are a lot alike,” he said (to my surprise!), “we don’t need bucket lists because we’ve lived each day of our lives like we were dying. Don’t stop doing the things you love, and keep pushing yourself to experience even more, never settle for just plain living”.
I could never have predicted I would learn as much as I did from him—about storytelling, about living, and about dying. I feel blessed to have known David.
I met Carolyn through my PhD program at Antioch University. She too was someone I did not predict I would connect with the first time I met her because I was intimidated by her quiet force. She presented herself in a way that I had not yet discovered in myself, but one I desperately wanted to find and develop. She was cool, calm, and collected, but also spoke with a firm and fierce voice that demanded you listen.
Being of indigenous origin, she spoke of Native people's traditions and of the injustices they continue to endure and why that should matter to someone who isn't native. She taught our cohort how research is a tool that shares the voices of marginalized people and how important it is to respect the reality that comes with each story. Each time she taught our classes, I felt more and more intrigued by the methods she used for research--because my scientific background had not really exposed me such holistic methodologies.
During one of our sessions, she introduced me to Phenomenology, a philosophical approach that values the essence of a phenomenon above all else. I was immediately interested in it because it represented a way to find truth that I had not yet discovered. Intrigued by the rabbit holes Phenomenology led me down, I found the courage to step outside of my comfort zone and ask Carolyn if she could mentor me how to continue down this path. She not only agreed, but our relationship grew enough that she joined my dissertation committee.
I often joked that I chose specific archetypes for my committee: Jon was my "Great Father" figure who was kind but challenged me to finish through a linear fashion and Carolyn was my "Great Mother" figure who was compassionate and encouraged me to trust the process and engage in all the intuitive acts. She held my hand as I plunged into the depths of esoteric aspects of philosophy and life, and she always listened to what I found with sincere interest and curiosity.
Carolyn retired before I finished my dissertation, but she continued on as my mentor. We spoke regularly by email and video throughout the process and she always made me feel that I was 'on the right track' no matter what track I found myself on. When I completed my dissertation, she was not able to attend, so I made a point of flying to see her in Vancouver before I defended.
We spent the day in celebration-- a big breakfast at a 50s-themed diner and then on to the Museum of Anthropology to indulge in another of our favorites--symbolism. I loved listening to her stories about the meanings behind the Native symbols on the totem poles and crafts in the museum. She reminded me to reconnect to my spirit totems and I recalled that the raven is who helps me creatively. I bought a magnet to remind me of this and it hangs on my fridge till this day.
I didn't know that would be the last time I would see her, but again--something told me to pay attention to everything she said that day. When I learned later that she was sick, I was grateful I trusted myself to both visit her and listen so intently to her words of wisdom.
She encouraged me to pass on this form of feminine mentorship in order to bring up the next generation to trust their intuitions and develop rich spiritual lives. She reminded me that I am more than just my brain, and that my relationship to the natural world is what really makes life worth living. And she taught me that sometimes the greatest gift we can give someone is to just truly listen to them. She always truly listened to me and for that I will be forever grateful.
I titled this "In Praise of Mentors" because I find that the practice of finding and being mentors is not what it used to be. As we modernize, sometimes we find mentors in strangers on the web versus in person and while this too is helpful, I have found that the most growth I have found is when a trusted, respected friend guides me through a stage I did not know I was ready for.
I feel honored to have known these two teachers and while their deaths could have led me to take on less mentors for fear of losing them, it has actually reminded me that no matter how short a time we have with one other, we are constantly learning. So to this I encourage you: find a mentor, and if they are anything like mine--they may be the last people you expected.