In 1941, when the Nazis were ruling Poland with an iron hand, a Krakow tailor with an eighth-grade education and a burning love for his faith founded a youth ministry in his parish.
One of the first young men to join this group was a manual laborer, Karol Wojtyla. As he studied with the intense Jan Tyranowski, he caught the flame of this man’s religious passion and became a priest in 1946. Later he would write of Tyranowski: “In his words, in his spirituality and in the example of a life given to God alone, he represented a new world that I did not yet know. I saw the beauty of a soul opened up by grace.”
In 1978, Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II, pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Among his other accomplishments, while in the Vatican he helped bring about the end of communism in Poland and the fall of the Soviet Union.
Had it not been for the guidance and inspiration of the tailor Tyranowski, it’s quite possible that Karol Wojtyla would have never become a priest. It’s also possible the world as we know it today would be a very different place.
A Grand Variety of Folks
These guides come from all walks of life.
That old guy who spends his afternoons sitting on his stoop shares a lifetime of wisdom and experience with the 12-year-old kid down the block. That demanding 30-something gymnastics coach drives her athletes to excel, but after practice, she spends an hour consoling and counseling a girl whose heart has been broken by her parents’ divorce.
Most of us have benefited from such people. We may not think of them as mentors until long after seeking their advice, but they’re the ones who help us discover our talents or guide us through some tough decisions. Often for young people, these guides are coaches, teachers, or church youth leaders, but they can also include a beloved aunt, a friend, or even a sibling.
One of the best mentors I’ve ever seen in action was Dr. Thomas Rennard of Asheville, North Carolina. He coached my youngest son’s homeschool basketball team and led these young men to victory after victory, but he was also their guide and confidant. When he’d drive some of the players to games, he’d give them mini-lectures on everything from world affairs to desirable qualities to look for in a future spouse. Next to my own influence—his mother died when Jeremy was 8—Tom had a deeply profound effect on the moral formation of my son.
Though some people deliberately set out to mentor others—the attorney who takes a young colleague under her wing or the pastor who counsels married couples—others fall into this role by accident.
John Cuddeback, a professor of philosophy for 26 years at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, and author of “True Friendship: When Virtue Becomes Happiness,” discovered long ago that the classroom discussions of thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas brought students into his office for one-on-one conversations on how they might practically apply these ideas in everyday life.
“Philosophy changes students’ lives,” Cuddeback says. “They see the implications for their daily lives. Ethics enters into it. They see that truth needs to be lived.”
As an example, Cuddeback mentions Aristotle’s thinking on the degrees of friendship. “It’s always very arresting for students to ask themselves what sort of friendships they have and what they should look for in friends. So when they come to the office we spend a lot of time talking about relationships.”
Music, the culture, the prevalence of technology in their lives: these are just a few of the topics that students bring from the classroom and their reading to their professor.
“I try to be very careful not to have all the answers,” Cuddeback says. “Very often I lend a sympathetic ear and assure them that they’re not the first ones with the problem. ‘You’re asking a great question,’ I tell them. ‘The fact that you’re asking this question means you’re well on the road to answering it.’ I tell them that we are in this together. ‘You are not alone’ is a common theme.”
To continue mentoring students after they’d graduated, Cuddeback established Life-Craft.org, where through articles and videos he offers practical advice on crafting a good life based on the philosophers he loves.
Lending a Helping Hand
“If I have seen further,” Isaac Newton once stated, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Like Newton, we too stand on the shoulders of guides. Many of them might not think of themselves in that role. My college professor and later good friend, Edward Burrows of Guilford College, probably didn’t consider himself my mentor, nor did I think of him as one, yet looking back he often gave me great advice and always encouraged me to make the most of myself.
And though we may not recognize it, we may act as guides for others by our words and our deeds. By our behavior and the advice we give to others, we may inspire them to follow a dream or to become a better person. We may not always have the answers, but through our conversation and questions, and by careful listening, we can help them find their way.
The Peterson Phenomenon
Sometimes we even find mentors in people we’ve never met. Jordan Peterson, author of “12 Rules for Life” and “Beyond Order,” became a mentor through his books, videos, and lectures to hundreds of thousands of young people, especially men. He spoke to them of ideas they’d never before heard:
“To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open.”
“You’re going to pay a price for every bloody thing you do and for everything you don’t do. You don’t get to choose to not pay a price. You get to choose which poison you’re going to take. That’s it.”
“Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.”
Harsh words, yes, but the fact that so many listened to them and took them to heart reveals a burning thirst for mentorship in our culture.
A Great Gift
More than ever, our young people need mentors, someone who can help them become their best selves. They need and want advice and guidance, and when they don’t find it in the people around them, they will take their life lessons from their cellphones and social media.
We don’t need to label ourselves mentors. In fact, that’s probably a ridiculous and self-defeating ambition. What we can do, if the opportunity presents itself, is listen to those who need our help, make the time for them, and when possible, make them aware, as John Cuddeback does, that we’re in this thing together.
“We make a living by what we get,” Winston Churchill stated, “but we make a life by what we give.”
Giving of ourselves: That is the very definition of mentorship.