Musings on mentorship and friendship

The Cambridge dictionary definition of a mentor is ‘a person who gives a younger or less experienced person help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school’. Although the mentor does not have to be older than the mentee, for the help or advice to be of value, the mentor is usually a step or two ahead of the mentee.

In theory, anyone of any age can be a mentor to someone and a mentee of someone. In practice though, being the mentor suits a boomer’s life situation better than being the mentee.

As mentors, boomers can pass on their valuable life experience to the next generations. But, to be a mentee, a boomer needs to find someone who is even more experienced, and the reality is that the elderly population pool is only getting smaller, not bigger. For those who can be our mentors, many are living isolated in retirement homes and inaccessible in the midst of COVID-19. If you have a mentor, count yourself as one of the blessed few.

What boomers need is not so much help or advice from a mentor, but live examples of what aging gracefully really means. There is no Aging 101 from some university that we can take to learn about the next phase we are entering.

Well, there are always self-help books. You will find books, usually written by ‘younger’ health professionals for ‘older’ readers, on what to eat, how to exercise, when to go to bed, etc, all important things which cater specifically to the physical body. It is hard to find information on the spiritual and emotional aspects of aging.

We all have authors whom we look up to. Unfortunately, we know more about their successes achieved at a younger age than their challenges in later and declining years. It seems like once they cross some mysterious age boundary, they simply ride off to the sunset of irrelevance, never to be taken seriously again.

J. Oswald Sanders, a renowned Christian author who gave us the classic Spiritual Leadership which sold over a million copies, is survived by his lesser known but equally insightful book Enjoying Your Best Years: Staying Young While Growing Older. Billy Graham, the late globetrotting American evangelist wrote Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well. Past successes aside, their experiences of growing old would be a spiritual treasure that is not to be missed.

Mentorship is a rare find for boomers. However, I doubt that boomers are actively looking for mentorship per se; it is really friendship that boomers are yearning for.

When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.

June 23, ‘You are the beloved: daily meditations for spiritual living’ – Henri Nouwen

Older people know how hard it is to not know what problems other people are having, and if being made aware of the problems, not try to solve them with our vast reserve of experience. To summarize the above quote by Father Henri Nouwen, empathy under a shroud of not-knowing is the sign of a true friendship.

True friends just don’t grow on trees. Friendship must be cultivated, often deliberately. Like all worthwhile endeavors in life, there is a heavy price to pay to make a new friend, our time and energy and, not the least, the risk and vulnerability that we take on. However, the sooner one starts nurturing a friendship, the greater the chance of it flourishing and bearing fruit.