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The power of a great guide


Last week I ran creative design for six days The Women’s Reading and Writing Seminar on “Identity and Belonging” which I have been studying every summer for four years now. Usually, we gather all week long on the grounds of St John’s Abbey, a lakeside Benedictine monastic community in central Minnesota; This year, just about everything happened. Course participants do careful readings and analysis of the personal essays of writers across cultures, delve deeply into their individual, family, and community narrative histories, and do a short piece of creative writing.

Each year, it proves to be a stressful week both physically and emotionally. When we wrapped up on the Sabbath, someone noticed that part of what made the seminar so meaningful was the unexpected element of guidance: how, through my words and my actions, I showed them how to achieve their full presence at work, for each other and for challenging themselves. I wasn’t aware of doing it, but it left me thinking for the next few days about what makes a good mentor.

In Homer’s epic poem OdysseyMentor was the old man who asked Odysseus to take care of his son Telemachus when he went to war. But in the story, it is the work of the Greek goddess Athena that lends meaning to how we understand the word “teacher” today. She disguises himself as an old man and goes to Telemachus to advise him on what to do for his family.

These days mentoring takes many forms – from formal corporate programs founded in the United States in the 1970s to global training facilities for coaching and mentoring accreditation. But no matter how one directs it, it appears to be an ancient and much needed human relationship, expressed in literature, religious texts, and popular culture.

Life hasn’t always put me squarely in line for the exact mentor I’ve ever needed. But 13 years ago, when my mom’s best friend pulled me aside and gave me a little book on the transition from childhood to childhood, I could name people who markedly influenced the way I saw the world, taught me rules about life, strengthened my potential, and believed in me more than I was ever capable of. Belief in myself. These are names and faces I can never forget. Every mentoring relationship is different, however I believe mentoring, when honored and taken seriously, is always a beneficial and mutually beneficial experience.


One of my favorite paintings about the topic”Christ’s childhood(c. 1620) by the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst. It is a scene of the boy Jesus with his father Joseph, the carpenter who taught him this craft. The night was dark, and Jesus, dressed in a bright red robe, leaned on the table and held a lit candle so that the elderly Joseph could From the work Two whispering angels, resembling children, stand in the background and point to father and son, apprentice and master.The painting is rich in religious symbolism and relics.But it also highlights some of the often underestimated aspects of the mentor-learner relationship.

The candle creates a chiaroscuro effect, casting a wonderful glow on the faces of Joseph and Jesus. He reveals several things: that the boy is focusing on the face of the older man rather than his work, and that he is staring at him with admiration and adoration. Guidance is more than just passing on skills or ideas. There is also a degree of staring at the guide’s face, which symbolizes his personality. The guides who have had the most profound influence in my life are those I respected and wanted to emulate, no matter what advice they gave.

Joseph, for his part, uses the light of Jesus to stay focused on his craft. I think part of the mutual gift in the mentor-learner relationship is that the apprentice’s presence in our lives highlights our work and our existence, and invites us to consider more intently what we do and how we do it – perhaps even beyond what we imagine is the limit of our growth and development. In this sense, routing is a reciprocal appeal. Knowing the full narrative in the Christian tradition, I realize that both characters in the painting contain the role of the one who teaches and the one who is teaching. But these roles appear in their lives at different times.

The angels in the background remind me of the role of the goddess Athena in the classic directing role. The act of guiding, guiding, and educating someone along any part of their life’s journey has a sacred element to them. Being entrusted and invited into someone’s life is an intimate act that we often take for granted, sometimes focusing more on the situation that enables us to be the guide, rather than on the transformative power that guidance holds for another life.


Take a look at oil in the late 19th century The work “Women’s Life Class” (c1879) by the American painter Alice Barber Stevens. This was her first published photograph, and came as a result of her petitioning – along with other female artists – to allow women to attend life drawing lessons, at a time when it was considered an inappropriate activity for respectable women. In this photo, there is a class of female artists seated or standing, huddled around a mannequin on stage. The women are crowded in the room and yet comfortable with each other, concentrating on drawing or staring from behind at the other’s canvas. They fought for space to develop their skills. By being alone, they encourage each other.

© Alami Photo Gallery

It makes me fall back into the category of women I met last week. Their ages ranged from the mid-20s to the mid-sixties, across cultures, races, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. I think of how quickly they connected in six days, how they patiently and attentively listened to each other’s stories and worked on each other’s writing, challenging each other to acknowledge their fears, being brave in their work, and paralleling their lives.

I remember that mentoring can happen in all directions, horizontally and vertically, across age gaps, cultures, and socioeconomic status, because no matter how “reachable” we are, we never exceed our ability to learn from each other. I remember that you never know who can travel next to you, giving you both what you know you need and what you haven’t been able to see yet. After all, in this life, aren’t we all invited guests to help each other out on our way?

Enuma Okoro
Columnist at FT Life & Arts

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