What is a mentor (10/14/2013)

I have taken on the decorated role of an e-mentor to one of my younger cousins this semester. She is just starting out high school (I still remember her in a diapers, so high school is a big deal), and one of her courses is evidently looking into a book entitled “The Six Most Important Decisions You’ll Ever Make.” To help guide the students through the book, the teacher has had them select mentors to interact with on a semi-weekly basis. I’m not sure of the exact criteria that students had to base their mentor choice on, but evidently I made the cut!

It’s been an eye-opening, inspiring and humbling experience for me. On the one hand, I love the interaction it has opened up between my cousin and I as we are able to delve into the deeper topics of life. On the other hand, I am constantly questioning and second-guessing myself with my responses.

Am I really qualified to give advice?

Should she listen to me?

Do I really have it all figured out?

yes/no, yes/no, and NO.
I say yes/no to the first because, well, can anyone ever TRULY be qualified to give advice on personal life matters to other people and expect it to unequivocally be completely applicable to that other person? No, of course not. Life is something composed of individual circumstance, history, belief and perspective. As much as we might think and want to say “oh I’ve so been there,” the harsh reality is that, actually–you haven’t! You have not been that person, with their history, memories and outlook, in the exact situation they are presently in. Sure, you can share opinions based on similar situations you have experienced, but in the end the best we can do is empathize.

In its most basic definition empathy is “the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another.” I have lived a good 24 years of life up to this point, which is about 8 years more than my cousin. Most of what she is experiencing now is similar to what I have experienced, but I will never be fully qualified to dole out the perfect advice for someone elses life. We are always the best at giving advice and the worst at taking our own.

Should she listen to me? Well, sure. Of course I want to say “yes always,” but there’s a need for realism here. She may nod, smile and agree, but in the end, we all have our own mistakes to make. Ideally we learn to not recreate exactly the same ones as everyone before us, but there’s still always that little voice in our heads saying “just because it didn’t work for them doesn’t mean it won’t work for ME.” So, alas, we are left with the somber realization that no matter how much we beg them to do as we say and not as we do…they will in the end say as we say, and do as they do.

And to my last question of the day–do I have it all figured out? I will admit this question did actually pop into my head, but it’s with a laugh that I bounce it back out with a resounding NO response. I make mistakes -sometimes the same one multiple times-every single day. I fall short of expectations (both my own and others’) and some days just stink (yes, I’m referring to you MONDAY), but I can proudly say that I am to the point in my life where I happily learn from them. Most mistakes I make now are ones from situations where I assess the risk/benefit ratio and just miscalculate a bit. I’m (mostly) past the stage of youth where blissful disobedience was the norm. You remember those days…back when rebellion came with a sense of pride. You took on most of life assuming no social or personal responsibility, and ignorantly believing everything you ever tried or did would work out just how you rehearsed it in your head. We like to call these times of blissful ignorance our “teenage” years.

To get back to the main idea here, no I don’t have the sole right to bestow perfect words of wisdom on everyone else, but I do have wisdom from my years.  I don’t mistakenly believe that my cousin will “take my word as law” as I fully expect her to blaze her own trail. And finally, I don’t have all of life’s intricacies figured out, but I have lived.

So I guess I approach mentorship as a process and a privilege. I am thankful for the opportunity to share, advise and listen to my cousin, but at the same time, I think my most important role will not be what I say, but rather what I choose to hear. I need to be an ear, a confidant and a safe place for her to just be herself. After all, in the end it really isn’t about what I think, it’s what she thinks. What she thinks is what will shape her world and herself, and if I can be a positive part of how she shapes her thoughts, then I will truly be a mentor–but more importantly than that, I’ll be her friend.

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