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What “Whiplash” Can Teach Us About Spiritual Mentoring

Over the years, there have been numerous films that feature the character of the “monster-mentor,” by which I mean an elder who forms a young apprentice through the toughest kind of tough love. Think of Lou Gossett, Jr.’s character in An Officer and a Gentleman who puts Richard Gere’s young navy recruit rather brutally through his paces; or of the awful drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket who ruthlessly prepares one young man to be a soldier, even as he leads another young man to commit suicide; or of Pai-Mei in Kill Bill, Vol. II, the limit expression of the Kung-Fu master, who brow-beats one recruit until she is able to put her fist through a four-inch thick piece of wood and who plucks out the eye of another less cooperative student; or finally of the overbearing Harvard law professor played so memorably by John Hausmann in The Paper Chase.

The latest and in many ways the most arresting instantiation of this character is Terrence Fletcher, the frightening and fascinating jazz band conductor in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. Played by the always compelling J.K. Simmons, Fletcher is a lean, mean musical fighting machine, who has committed himself to bringing out the best in his talented students through a program of verbal abuse, intimidation, constant competition, and mental cruelty. He has his eye on a young drum prodigy named Andrew Neiman, who has ambitions of becoming the next Buddy Rich. In the course of their time together, Fletcher calls Andrew every demeaning name in the book, slaps him several times across the face, berates his parents, hurls a cymbal at him, kicks over his drum kit, and drives the teenager so hard that Andrew’s blood covers the skins of his drums. In his frenzy to get to a crucial performance on time, Andrew is involved in a serious auto accident, but so determined is he to live up to his mentor’s expectations that, bloodied and with broken bones, he staggers to his kit, only to be informed by the pitiless Fletcher that he has been dismissed from his position with the band. 

In time, Fletcher lays out his philosophy to his young charge. Charlie Parker, arguably the greatest saxophonist in history, became a master of his instrument only because his teacher did not allow him to settle for mediocrity but instead pushed him relentlessly. Without this intense pressure, Fletcher explains, the world would never have received the gift that Parker was uniquely qualified to give. So he, Fletcher, is now using any means necessary in order to foster a comparable talent. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, but suffice it to say that, after one more spectacular act of cruelty, the master manages to coax from his disciple a transcendently beautiful performance. 

This thought-provoking film raises all sorts of questions about teaching, fatherhood, the moral cost of aesthetic excellence, the legitimacy of psychological manipulation, etc., and one of its virtues is that it doesn’t pretend neatly to resolve any of these complexities. What particularly interests me, however, is the light it sheds on the issue of spiritual mentoring.

In the period just after Vatican II, the years when I was coming of age in the Catholic Church, great stress was placed on self-acceptance and self-esteem. Feeling good about oneself and overcoming neurotic guilt were highly prized, and spiritual direction was largely a matter of “walking with” a directee, helping him to find his own way on his own terms. With Whiplash in mind, I wonder whether we have paid too high a price for this gentility, namely settling for spiritual mediocrity, failing to call a generation of seekers to real excellence.

In point of fact, if we reach back into the great tradition, we find numerous examples of spiritual masters who, though not exactly monsters, certainly shared some of the toughness of Pai-Mei or Terrence Fletcher. There is a story in the Benedictine tradition of a postulate and his mentor. The older monk took the aspirant to a lake deep in the woods and told the young man to get in the water. Then he held the boy’s head under water until he began to struggle. Still he held his head under water. The boy writhed and flailed his arms, and still the monk held him under water. Finally, he released him and the young man gasped for air. “When you need God as desperately as you need that air,” the teacher explained, “come back to the monastery.” In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola laid out a program designed to encourage detachment from worldly goods that we tend to value more than God. He told his charges agere contra (to act against) whatever lures them away from God. So if pride is their problem, they should actively seek the lowest place; if wealth is their temptation, they should embrace poverty; if honors beguile them, they should pray to be dishonored, etc. I recall that when I first did an eight-day Jesuit retreat, under the guidance of a tough director, I was exhilarated by the demands that were placed on me. I wasn’t being told that I was fine; on the contrary, I was vividly reminded of my sin and then told to do very definite things in order to get my act together. 

Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think that Terrence Fletcher is an impeccable model of spiritual leadership, nor do I support violence as a means of personal development. But I do think that we can learn something important from him, namely that lack of toughness on the part of the mentor can indeed conduce toward mediocrity in the student. If we see the truth of this in regard to Kung-Fu fighting or drumming, shouldn’t we see it in regard to what matters most?