The word mentor is Greek in origin. It refers to a character in The Odyssey, a friend of Odysseus who offers counsel to his son during the father’s long absence upon the sea. But the sage Mentor is actually Athena in disguise, the goddess of war and wisdom who guides and sustains Odysseus through his journey. A mentor, therefore, is a wisdom guide.
The mentors of literature are always wanderers. They have traveled, they understand the ways of the road, they have traversed their own circuitous paths in the desert. They have experience, hardscrabble wisdom, clarity, a history of grappling and reaching and searching. Of having faced up to it – whatever it is.
Adolescence is typically the most pivotal phase of a person’s life. We decide, often without recognizing it, our trajectory into the world. And how we enter is how we go on. Adolescence is the first tentative step forward, the juncture at which we establish our speed and direction and even our purpose. The character of our movement is defined. And that character is shaped by mentorship more than by any other force. The mentor might be a parent, or grandparent, or friend, or coach – it doesn’t matter much. But it must be someone whose temperament coaxes from us our better nature.
Without mentorship a child becomes a wanderer in a strange country.
At an indistinct age – fourteen, fifteen, perhaps as late as seventeen – most kids seek mentors and guides who are not parental. The horizons of adolescence open and the child enters a wider world. Historically, grandparents have been the ushers and guides of kids at this delicate stage. But in the modern age grandparents are often absent, or disconnected from the child’s reality. In the wake of such absence, and without alternate mentoring provided by school teachers or coaches or spiritual leaders in the community, teens turn to one another. Sometimes they form a youth gang and choose the most vicious among them to be their mentor and guide. And the first thing such mentors wish to do is get high.
It might be possible for the current generation of mentors to change the pattern of adolescent alienation and drug use. The kids cannot do it themselves. But mentors (and parents, of course) possibly could: by staying in touch with the emotional lives of children, by being available, by confronting and talking about the legacies of addiction that have been passed down from our own parents. The mentor, perhaps more than any other social role, is in a unique position to influence, in fundamental and lasting ways, the entire lifespan of a developing child. This is a sacred trust, a gift of engagement offered to us by the generous spirit of childhood.
The mentor’s task is to witness, to trust in the spirit of healing, to offer honesty and compassion. And to offer it to the defiant, the truculent, the dismissive, the unready and the unsteady in equal measure. Nothing less.
In the oldest Egyptian tombs and temples that have been unearthed, in rooms festooned with hieroglyphics, in texts that lay undeciphered for five thousand years, one may read of an ancient god who is the bringer of knowledge and of illumination. He is the mythological ancestor of Merlin, of Gandalf, and of the many guides and mentors who populate the old tales of every culture. He is the original storyteller, the inventor of writing, the trickster and wayfinder. His name is Thoth. The Greeks called him Hermes. He illuminates the labyrinths, the lost and switchbacking tunnels, and he is keeper of the great and hidden library.
Mentors today assume the storied mantle of the wayfinder.