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The Wise Mentors and Why You and I Need Them

June 9, 2021


When I started my teaching career, I had many ideas about how I would make theological topics relevant and memorable in the lives of my students. Unfortunately, some of those ideas, if implemented, would have probably been remembered by my students as the silliest experiences of their lives, either making me a legend or spelling the end of my teaching career. I knew I had a slight tendency to be silly, but I justified it by throwing caution to the wind and telling myself, “Even if my lessons are silly and stupid, at least the students will remember them.” Thank goodness I had an older, wiser mentor/colleague who bluntly told me to drop most of my ideas. Fortunately, I mostly heeded his advice. 

Early on, I was assigned to teach on the Trinity, a daunting task. I remember watching Slumdog Millionaire around this time, thinking I could use some dancing as a way to teach the perichoresis (“to dance around”) of the Trinity. I had a dance all choreographed in my head: I would have my class go outside and do a circle dance holding hands, moving in and out, ending with a dance sequence like the Jai Ho Indian dance featured during the movie’s final credits. Great idea, right? 

The morning of the lesson, I threw the perichoresis Jai Ho dance idea before my colleague, perhaps sensing that my lesson might utterly fail. I’ll always remember his brief response. 

I liked my mentor; he called a spade a spade and did not tolerate nonsense, especially mine. He looked at me with a Brad Pitt grin and in a Lt. Aldo Raine voice said, “Yeah . . . I’d probably drop it.” 

I dropped it alright. 

While I still occasionally dream about the pedagogical effectiveness of that Trinitarian class dance, when I wake up, I’m thankful I heeded my mentor’s advice. Just as in the movie Inglourious Basterds, young, inexperienced “professionals” need their own Lt. Aldo Raines who can identify the potential problems of their supposedly great ideas.

Having a trusted, wise mentor is crucial for avoiding rookie mistakes, not only in professions, but in life in general.  Such wise mentors are needed in today’s rapidly changing world to help the younger generations see and navigate its trappings with wisdom. 

But that might not ring true in today’s world dominated by ever-new technologies and increasing complexity. Old-time teachers are often dependent on young, inexperienced teachers to show them how to navigate the new education technologies being implemented in the classroom. Whenever I see the old dependent on the young to help them better understand the contemporary world, I’m reminded of an insightful remark by German philosopher Hans Jonas, and I shake my head wondering where everything is going. Jonas wrote:

If a man in the fullness of his days, at the end of his life, can pass on the wisdom of his experience to those who grow up after him; if what he has learned in his youth, added to but not discarded in his maturity, still serves him in his old age and is still worth teaching the then young—then his was not an age of revolution, not counting, of course, abortive revolutions. The world into which his children enter is still his world, not because it is entirely unchanged, but because the changes that did occur were gradual and limited enough for him to absorb them into his initial stock and keep abreast of them. If, however, a man in his advancing years has to turn to his children, or grandchildren, to have them tell him what the present is about; if his own acquired knowledge and understanding no longer avail him; if at the end of his days he finds himself to be obsolete rather than wise—then we may term the rate and scope of change that thus overtook him, “revolutionary.”

Young professionals have often been led to think in such revolutionary terms, chucking the wisdom of old because of its supposed irrelevance in a constantly changing world. 

My mentors, throughout my life, have guided me in the right direction, helping me to avoid the typical (and dancing atypical) pitfalls I’ve placed before me in life and in my work. The wisdom they’ve gleaned and shared has served me well throughout my life so far. They’ve been more valuable than all the tips by the ubiquitous “life coaches” who populate social media and the technocrats with all their information. But I am concerned that people are forgetting the value of in-person mentorship. 

The growing rift between the generations threatens to leave our youth without the important guidance they need. Granted, older generations are not faultless. I have met elderly people who seem less mature than teenagers. But a truly wise older mentor is priceless, and we cannot forget that. 

The same goes for the teacher-student relationship. Students need wise teachers—first mentors—who can help them make decisions that will lead to their full flourishing. 

In high school, I had such a mentor-teacher. He was my philosophy and history instructor. He recognized my all-consuming passion for philosophy and encouraged me to boldly declare it for my major in college, despite the pushback I would likely receive from my peers and family. At one point in college, I deceived myself into thinking that philosophy was not my path and that I should major in something more “practical.” I was blessed to have rather quickly realized that such a move would be a mistake, and that despite the criticism and concerns people had about my future, I needed to shift back to philosophy. 

Recently, I received a message from a former student. He wrote to me just to thank me for introducing him to the intellectual tradition of the Church. In a way, I was his mentor. He’s now studying at Villanova with Dr. James Matthew Wilson and Dr. Mark Shiffman, and he’s loving it. I do not know what he plans to do, but I am glad that he has such lights as his mentors. 

Mentorship is an art. I’m still working at it. Eventually, I hope to become a bit wiser and more mature so as to become like my former Lt. Aldo-like colleague, recognizing the world as it is and passing on wisdom to the next generation—but with a Chicago accent. With the help of the Holy Spirit and my current mentors, I just might get there. 

In order to be open to mentorship, we need humility. We need to recognize that there is always room for improvement in whatever we do, and we will make mistakes along the way. But what matters is whether we have enough humility to keep going with a willingness to learn from those mistakes. The combination of humility and good mentorship leads to phronesis (“practical wisdom”), which, according to Aristotle, is necessary for being virtuous. Such wisdom cannot be had without guided practice. 

My idea about the Trinity dance circle might have worked in a different school and at a different time (maybe in the late 1960s), but, as my mentor suggested, it was not going to work at our school. My mentor had phronesis. I did not, and it was good that I listened to him. Permitting people with practical wisdom to mentor you is a wise move for a successful career. An even better move is to follow King Solomon’s example and ask the giver of Wisdom himself.