Natural Allies: In Search of a Mentor

By Stephen Johnson, PH.D.
As printed in Man!, Spring 1992, pp.10-11

“Mentor” first appears in Homer’s Odyssey as a loyal adviser of Odysseus who was entrusted with the care and education of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. Throughout history, a mentor has been a wise and trusted counselor, usually at least 10 to 15 years older than his protégé or student. The mentor has skill and has performed his craft to a level of mastery. He, as an example or model, passes on his skill and shows the student how dreams can be realized.

The mentor recognizes the meaningful issues in the student. He enhances the experience for the younger man who has already achieved something and is looking for more. The “puer,” which is Latin for “boy,” is an uninitiated or naive male who longs for someone to acknowledge his gifts, to validate him and to bestow a blessing. The father often misses this opportunity, since the role of provider usually takes him away from the house. When the father is away, the house is turned over to the mentor.

It is not traditionally the father’s job to see his son’s soul, nor is it the mentor’s job to put a roof over the boy’s head or to protect him. The mentor provides a bridge away from the father, guiding the young man to cut the parental ties and bond with nature. The mentor sees the boy’s spirit and gives him a name. He opens the world of the boy’s interest and guides him in finding his direction.

Natural Allies:  The Grandfather

My best friend, ally and genuine mentor for the first 19 years of my life, was my grandfather. His name was Lawrence Stewart, but everyone called him Stew. He was just that sort of a fellow, too, who would answer to a nickname like that. Scottish, 6’2″, perpetually grinning, bald and rugged; he was bigger than life itself. He had a huge lap that could hold both his dog and me at the same time.

Stew was a man’s man who loved the great outdoors and cherished fishing and hunting as expressions of his personal relationship with the wilderness and survival. He normally wore moccasins, a deer hide jacket, suspenders and a broad brimmed hat. The man loved his garden and was especially proud of his multicolored rose bushes. In the kitchen, he reined as king.  From my boyish perspective, there was no match for some of the culinary surprises that he whipped up and there was no limit to the amount of ice cream we could consume on a single summer afternoon.

My grandfather was a self-taught carpenter and an artist who had a shop in the back yard that served as a sacred container for his special creations. The shop had all the right tools including every size nail and screw and it was home for a vast array of paints and pastels of every hue. This space had no doubt been sanctified for a wizard to fashion the very things that would delight a young, aspiring apprentice.

As an ally, Stew accepted and validated me without question. He unconditionally loved me and I knew that I was pleasing to him. He admired me and always seemed curious and interested in what I was thinking, dreaming and doing.  I could fantasize with him and we would tell tales, spin yarns, make up stories and even on occasion, act them out.

As a mentor, he taught me how to ride a horse, steer a boat, guide a plane, tie a fishhook and whittle a piece of wood. He encouraged me to go for it; not to hold back but to stretch and reach for what I wanted. I felt his support and knew that he stood behind what I was doing. This provided the needed safety to attempt the new, the daring or even the seemingly impossible. Unquestionably, I felt that he was on my side.

My grandfather served me in many ways; not least among them was being a model of what a real friend and ally could be to another. He stood for loyalty and devotion. He displayed strength and courage. He was commanding while avoiding being demanding. He had a gentle side and even a vulnerable side that I saw from time to time. His compassion and understanding always revealed the depth of his caring. He told me his truth and made room for mine.

Stew displayed the traits of a man who had grown up during the depression and had learned to make it on his own and fight for what he knew was right. Even his John Wayne-like characteristics, which have grown less fashionable over time, were steeped in tradition and grounded in his own personal history. As a high-ranking Mason he embraced the same daring pioneer spirit that helped to guide the founding fathers of this country. He represented freedom for me; the freedom to be myself, no matter what.

My grandfather made an impact on me, leaving an impression that will be felt for my entire life. The legacy that he passed on has given me the courage to embark on the journey and the strength to endure the tests along the way.

I think the pain of his death was too overwhelming for me when I was 19, so I avoided truly grieving the loss until I was around 40. It was in the midst of my midlife crisis that I finally allowed myself to realize how deeply I had missed him and how much I would have liked to have his soothing support during such a challenging time in my life.

When I talk with other men, they frequently convey stories about a special relationship with a grandparent or another elder. An honoring is expressed as they speak of their mentors with respect and appreciation.

However, there are countless numbers of young men in this country who are starving from father-hunger and who have never experienced the mutual admiration inherent in a mentoring relationship. Due to the breakdown of the nuclear family over the last 30 years, family members have drifted apart and are now suffering the pain of that alienation and isolation. We have a vast generation of men going through midlife and careening from crisis to crisis, longing for the understanding, wisdom and guidance of a ritual elder. Many men remain clueless concerning their needs and yet there are those who are searching for greater understanding of what it means to be a balanced male in a changing world and are eager for the spiritual initiation into conscious manhood.

Additionally, with so much importance these days directed toward the young and the youthful lifestyle in this country, I have observed a growing tendency to ignore or even neglect our ritual elders as unpleasant reminders of aging and mortality. Many of our seniors have been passed over and have tended to lose sight of their own intrinsic worth.

I sincerely encourage that we don’t forget the inherent value of the grandfather as a natural resource; but, rather, commission our elders to pass on their history through mentoring their offspring.