Mentors: The Relationship between Truth and Knowing

The word “mentor” from the Greek Mentōr, the name of the adviser of the young Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) in Homer’s Odyssey. The mentor has been down the road before that the mentee is now walking upon. The mentor is one who not only has been down the road, but knows the other who he or she is leading.

Now, what do we mean when we talk about knowing the other?

“Hey, do you know Deanna?” “Yeah, she was my sister’s close friend back in high school and was often at our house.” “I’ve known Rod and Tony for about 5 years.” Or, as I’ve sometimes heard since living in Steubenville: a person get’s introduced to another and the other says “Good to know you.”

But what precisely do we know when we really know another person?

Mentor Virgil Leading Dante

Mentors: Perceiving the Essence of Another

We are not going to deeply explore the meaning of “know” in this context. Books beyond counting have been written about epistemology-the study of knowledge– and we could get hung up very easily here.

I simply mean that to know a person means you have developed a relationship with the person (to some degree or another) and that you perceive the truth or nature of that person.

So, if I have a relationship with the storeowner, who is friendly and shares me all about his wife and kids, and then later I find out that he was actually a foreign spy with no family I would say I did not know him at all. It was a false relationship, false information about him.

Knowledge is in degrees of course. And this is certainly the case in our understanding of other people.

But what is it about a person that is most true of them?

1) The person’s relationships, especially those that are most foundational and enduring, are constitutive of the person. We have no being at all without relationships and are richly, deeply situated within a whole web of relationships not just with concrete persons like parents, siblings, friends, but with culture, nation, etc. With his God especially.

2) The person’s essential characteristics. General traits they share with others. These help us to know person but bluntly.   To say a person is extraverted or friendly doesn’t say much. Those characteristics most authentic to the person – these are much truer than general characteristics.

Every Life Is a Vocation

“In the design of God, every man is called upon to develop himself, for every life is a vocation. At birth, everyone is granted, in germ, a set of aptitudes and qualities for him to bring to fruition. Their coming to maturity, which will be the result of education received from the environment and personal efforts will allow each man to direct himself toward the destiny intended for him by his Creator.” From On the Development of Peoples, Paul VI.

Here we have the Holy Father Paul VI noting how essential characteristics of the person designed by God, given by God are clearly constitutive of his unique nature. Key part of his destiny. He also speaks about how these develop in relationship with “the environment” which obviously includes a whole host of social, cultural, historical factors.

But the place in which the person’s relationships and essential characteristics especially come alive are in what we call the person’s story. In their “story” we see the dynamic between their intrinsic energy to be a certain way in a social, cultural, historical, familial context. We see the dynamic of others acting upon the person and the person in their own self-creative freedom responding to such action and initiating other projects. But the story connects all this dynamic exchange in a holistic fashion.

The Importance of Story

In common speech we will often say as move to get to know another: “What is your story?”

Much research – much good research – has been done in contemporary psychology about the importance of story for persons to build a strong sense of identity and, of course, a means to share that identity with others.

Much of this work is highly consistent with Catholic anthropology. But I want to close this section not by appeal to a psychologist but one of my favorite teachers in philosophy, Norris Clarke, S.J. Let’s listen:

If we wish to know in full self-consciousness who we are, we must assimilate and integrate—self consciously and deliberately, I think—at least the key moments and phases of our own past, so that the meaningful pattern hidden within them emerges into our own self-consciousness, so that our lives reveal themselves as a meaningful story, and not just a collection of unconnected slides about our past stored up in more or less accurate memory. Norris Clarke, “Medalist’s Address: The Philosophical Importance of Doing One’s own Autobiography,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 54 (1980), p. 18.

Paul VI spoke about how we are designed with a set of aptitudes and qualities. Note here that Father Clarke highlights the meaningful pattern of our life revealed by story, a pattern which surely includes the emergence of those latent unique gifts.

Our lives are revealed through story to others. The very process of formulating story is important, Fr. Clarke believes, because it also enables us to be fully self-conscious of who we are.

If we as mentors are eager to truly hear the story of our mentees, there is  great opportunity. Our mentees will grow in self-awareness of who they are at the same time as we grow in knowledge of them!

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Luke is co-creator of ActivPrayer and Executive Director of Inscape, an organization that he co-founded with Dr. Joshua Miller. Visit his Speaker page here.

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