This article by Rebecca Geiger is a qualitative study of six prominent historical figures and the mentors that played vital roles in their lives. It has been suggested that we need to learn to identify and nurture the gifts of wisdom and compassion, as these qualities are required to preserve our world and our species. Rebecca Geiger has identified these six individuals as exemplars of such gifts, and examines the qualities of their mentors, the nature of the relationships between the mentor and mentee and the long term effects of such mentorship.
Author: Geiger, R.
Publications: Talent Development IV, pp. 345-349
Publisher: Great Potential Press
Howard Gruber has suggested that we need to learn to identify and nurture the gifts of wisdom and compassion, as these qualities are required to preserve our world and our species. This qualitative research is part of a larger ongoing study of the lives of six individuals who exemplify these gifts. Criteria for purposeful selection were: moral and ethical leadership, exceptional integrity, compassion, and involvement with their culture and their times.
This facet of the study examines those who played influential roles in their lives, especially mentors. We will examine the qualities of the mentor, the nature of the relationship, the developmental timing, and the long term effects of the mentorship.
Subjects, Influences, and Mentors
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 to 1945) of Germany was a pastor and theologian. Arrested in 1943 for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler, he was hung April 8, 1945, eleven days before the Allies liberated Europe. His writings, including Letters and Papers from Prison, have continued to influence and inspire others far beyond his continent and specific convictions.
Bonhoeffer was deeply influenced by his family. His father, professor of psychiatry at Berlin University, was a distant benign patriarch typical of the times. His mother was primarily concerned that her children think for themselves and be responsible human beings.
The larger family was the point of reference. His was a prominent, gifted, closely knit and well-educated family of the liberal upper middle-class. On both sides of the family there was history of civic courage, even civil disobedience when necessary.
A brilliant theology student at the University of Berlin, his primary influence was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Barth’s theology was anathema to the Berlin faculty, yet Dietrich did not hesitate to express his Barthian leanings in papers and classes.
Dietrich wrote of Barth: “Mere is with him an openness, a readiness to accept an objection if it is to the point…. In [his conversation] he is completely present” (Bethge, p. 132).
Albert Camus (1913-1960) won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1957 for his novels, notably The Plague and The Stranger. During World War II he served as editor of the resistance newspaper Combat. Existentialist and agnostic, he was a moral leader in postwar Europe.
Camus grew up in poverty in Algeria. His father was killed in World War I in 1914, and his deaf mother and harsh grandmother were both illiterate.
When he was 10, his teacher, Louis Germain, recognized his giftedness, lent him books, and talked his family into his attending high school. At the time of his Nobel Prize, he wrote to Germain from Stockholm:
- When I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching, and your example, none of all this would have happened. (Lottman, p. 609)
At the gymnasium and later at the university, he had philosophy with Jean Grenier who was to be his life long mentor and friend. He introduced Camus to Hindu philosophy, the mystics, and Dostoyevsky. He lent or gave books to Camus, and they often met in cafes for long conversations.
Dorothy Day (1897-1980), founder of The Catholic Worker, was a journalist, radical socialist and radical Christian, and a tireless worker for workers and the poor. Among the causes leading to her many arrests were pacifism, civil rights, and conditions of farm workers.
There were no important mentors until her thirties. An indifferent student in college, she speaks of no teachers. Her primary influence came from authors, especially Dostoyevsky.
At thirty-five, a recent Catholic convent she had prayed for a way to use her writing, her faith, and her concern for the poor. A stranger appeared at her home. Peter Maurin, a poor peasant/philosopher and devout Catholic, believed he and Dorothy could create his vision of society. Their cooperation led to The Catholic Worker -the newspaper and then the movement.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk, mystic, and author of essay, autobiography, and poetry. He was deeply involved in many causes-ecumenism, the struggle for peace, and the plight of deprived minorities. Late in his life he pursued his interest in Eastern religions and the common experience of mystics of all faiths.
Motherless since he was six, Thomas was very close to his artist father with whom he spent six Bohemian years. His father shared his love of Blake and jazz and fragments of religious faith. In England, his classics teacher encouraged Tom’s concentration in languages and literature.
Tom’s primary mentors were at Columbia University. “Almost at once he came under the spell of Mark Van Doren,” an influence and friendship that was to be important the rest of his life. His classes “brought things out of you, they made your mind produce its own explicit ideas.” He mostly asked questions, and answering them “you found yourself saying excellent things that you did not know you knew, and that you had not, in fact known before.” (Mott, p. 61)
Tom also found a friend and guide in professor Dan Walsh, to whom he first talked about becoming a priest. Walsh had spent time at Gethsemani in Kentucky and suggested that Tom visit there-the place where Merton would spend the last half of his life.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), beloved for her compassion and her efforts for human rights, was a powerful voice for social causes and an exemplar of women’s public leadership.
When Eleanor was of high school age, she attended Allenswood, a boarding school in England dedicated to giving a broad education emphasizing responsibility in society and personal independence. It was a collegiate environment that took the education of women seriously.
The founder and headmistress of Allenswood was Mlle. Marie Souvestre, a passionate humanist committed to human justice. She believed that young women should develop an independent vision and the means to defend that vision. She demanded that her students take themselves seriously and encouraged them to become politically engaged.
Eleanor was one of her favorite students, chosen to sit beside her at dinner and to travel with her during several vacations. These were the happiest years of Eleanor’s life. For the rest of her life she kept Marie Souvestre’s portrait on her desk. Her life reflected Souvestre’s influence and spirit.
Elie Wiesel (1928-) survivor of Buchenwald, author and teacher, received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1968 “in recognition for his work as spokesman for world suffering.” He became the literary conscience of the Holocaust, sharing his philosophy that indifference and apathy are the great source of evil and danger to the world.
Elie Wiesel was shaped by his family and culture. In the two years in Buchenwald, he was with his father constantly until his father’s death January 1945. His grandfathers were also models. Elie was a conscientious Talmud scholar, reading the Torah, the prophets, and Jewish history.
After the Holocaust-a fifteen year old orphan-he continued his studies in France. Frananqois Wahl, engaged to teach him French, played a significant role in his life. Wahl conveyed the subtleties of French literature, took him to concerts and the Latin quarter, and shared his life.
In 1947, the nineteen year old Elie was approached by his most significant mentor, the mysterious Talmudic scholar, Sushani. “Few people have so disconcerted and fascinated me …. It is to him that I owe my constant drive to question, my pursuit of the mystery that lies within knowledge. I would not be the man I am, the Jew I am, had not an astonishing, disconcerting vagabond accosted me one day to inform me that I understood nothing” (Wiesel, pp. 126-130).
Commonalities of Influence
Family and the culture in which it was embedded were especially formative for Bonhoeffer and Wiesel. For most there was an influential group of friends who were supportive and reminded. Third there were authors who influenced, for example, Dostoyevsky was especially important to Camus, Day, and Merton. There were also people who influenced from afar: Gandhi for Bonhoeffer and Merton, for several years Bonhoeffer knew Barth only from his ideas. Developmental timing of significant mentor influence varied among the subjects.
Qualities of the mentors have common themes as well. Almost always the mentors exhibited the following characteristics: awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the general and specific giftedness of the mentee; generosity of time and caring; listening to the mentee’s ideas; openness; holding the mentee to high standards; expanding the mentee’s experiences; and being models for the mentee. In several cases the mentors sought the mentee out. Frequently we see the mentors offering friendship and sharing their lives and not hesitating to give direct advice.
Gruber invites us to consider how we could recognize and nurture this kind of moral/ethical spiritual giftedness. We can be guided by awareness of how these subjects were influenced by family, by teachers, by books lent or suggested. We can nurture in ourselves and in those we teach the characteristics exhibited by these effective mentors.
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