Tagged: Wplongform

Mentor: A meditation


Mentor was the tutor of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey. He easily could have been Michael or William, but he happened to be named Mentor.

Today, then, when we say that someone is “a mentor,” it is like saying they are “a mike” or “a bill.” Somewhere along the line, the name became a title, then a common noun, then a verb. Maybe it’s because Mentor sounds so much like “editor” or “creditor” that we’ve bestowed new parts of speech on it.

Considering that, what should we do with the word “mentee?” Almost everyone recognizes what it means: the person who is receiving the mentoring. But is it a word? Does it have meaning just because people think it does?

The answer is no. And yes.

Mentee does not appear in my dictionary. And yet, a quick Google search will yield about half a million results. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary online, the word has been in use for only about 50 years.

If Mentor were in fact a real person, he would have been alive somewhere around 1,000 B.C. His name has been known to Western Civilization, then, for more than 3,000 years. That means that “mentee” has been a word for one-sixtieth of the time that “mentor” has. A lot has changed since 1,000 B.C.

About two years ago, I wrote a piece wondering at the woeful state of mentoring in this time, this place. What I had hoped to find when I entered the world of work, in the way of a mentor to guide me, has never materialized. It has left me disappointed and disoriented, searching for what seems to be missing.

Art by Hans Erni

Art by Hans Erni

Over time, along with the word, the idea of a mentor—the person of greater experience who takes you under their wing and fosters the knowledge and skills for you to succeed—has become contorted, it’s true meaning lost as it has become institutionalized, incorporated, and marketed. (Alarmingly, “toxic mentor” is a term in circulation these days.)

What we’re really talking about, after all, is the act of having a more experienced, more mature person (or people) provide support, knowledge, and perhaps even love to the novice learner. While these people don’t have to be that far apart in age, it’s usually the case that the mentor is older.

This inter-generational relationship is how societies have been run since the dawn of humankind. Only in recent centuries have we destroyed the model, making it unrecognizable and ineffective. This loss can be correlated to many of the social problems we have today. It’s time that we revived the practice. Surely we have nothing to lose.

It’s hard to “give back” when you feel you’ve never gotten—I understand that. And what has taken hundreds of years to develop won’t be changed overnight. But like anyone who has had to turn their life around, there’s always the first step of recognizing the problem.

Poor Mentor. I think he’d be shocked to see what’s been done in his name. Maybe it’s not too late to change that.


John Smith, Jamestown, and the Beginnings of America


Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. – Pope Francis

In October 1609, Capt. John Smith, hero of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, left to go back to England, injured and disgraced, never to return.

It was probably for the best. Jamestown was turning out to be a mistake, contained in a disaster, wrapped up in a tragedy. The settlers wanted to abandon it more than once. It was a pathetic beginning for the colonization of the part of North America that would, 170 years later, declare its independence and become the United States.

Of the approximately 560 people who had so far been transplanted to live at Jamestown, more than 240 had died. The Sea Venture, one of the largest and most modern ships to set sail for Virginia, was shipwrecked with 150 on board. Even worse was yet to come during the winter of 1609-10 when 440 out of 500 settlers died in what has become known as the “starving time.” This is an 88 percent death rate!

I visited the Jamestown archaeological site this past summer. The work done there to date is well documented in both the main visitor center and the Archaearium, but I found myself leaving with many questions. What motivated the settlers to leave England for such a miserable ending? How did the backers and financiers in London justify sending so many to their deaths? Were these people just victims of circumstances or was there something else going on that was crippling their ability to thrive?

Photo by A. Taylor

Crosses marking the dead at Jamestown. Photo by A. Taylor

The answers to these questions have been the subject of debate for several decades at least. But it is undeniable that Jamestown was the beginning of America.

However, our American myth of origin is exactly that–a myth. This country did not begin with noble Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Rather, it began in a swampy, stinking scrap of land in Virginia.

According to author and historian James Horn, Jamestown–the first permanent English settlement on the continent–“was not intended as a model for some kind of idealized version of English society…or as a religious refuge for ‘God’s chosen people.'” Rather, “colonies would produce goods in demand in England that hitherto had to be imported from Europe and Asia, and English merchants would provide colonists with necessary credit, laborers, and supplies.”

By modern standards, though, this colony was an astonishing waste of resources, money, and human life. It is surprising to me that human life was given so little value. Not only were the Indians slaughtered mercilessly merely for being not Christians, but the English settlers were sent to their almost certain death simply because the lords wanted to beat the Spanish and claim North America for their king.

And to make money. Lots of money.

What it boils down to for me is this: The idea that we are a great nation with a manifest destiny founded on Christian principles is a fiction. Yes, we have persevered, but mostly out of dumb luck and not a divine plan.

Are these the so-called values that some Americans want to restore when they say our country needs to be restored to her former glory? If not, what is it exactly that they want to restore?

There is no immutable force guiding our direction. It is we, the People, who have a sacred obligation to set the nation’s course, to seek positive change, to honor our fellow citizens, and be committed to democracy and the Constitutional process.

I wonder what Capt. John Smith would think of America today. Would he be disappointed? Would he see a lot of material wealth without much unity? Maybe. Or perhaps he would he be happy to see that, despite the ill-conceived trainwreck of our first settlement, we somehow have risen above our beginnings and just might have a shot at another 400 years.


I Don’t Rush to Volunteer Anymore. Here’s Why

Recently, I contacted a public interest nonprofit to find out about volunteer opportunities. Without learning anything about me, the coordinator pleasantly asked “Can you help market an event to show a movie in your town about tax loopholes?”

Um, no. Public relations are not part of my skill set, and spreading the word about this movie would’ve involved a significant amount of what little free time I had. Politely, I declined and she never contacted me again. This got me thinking about why it is that I’ve increasingly avoided volunteering for anything.vol_comp

During National Volunteer Week (April 12-18, 2015) we will likely hear many appeals for various opportunities for service. Organizations such as schools, churches, civic groups, and nonprofits are always in need of volunteers. In fact, these organizations chronically lament the fact that they struggle to find adequate manpower and funding to support their missions. But just as important as donating your time to a cause is being aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

Generally, organizations that can’t afford to pay all their workers recruit volunteers by offering intangible incentives. But these incentives, I have observed, don’t provide all the value that they promise.

To varying degrees, organizations base their appeals for volunteers on one or more of the following:

  1. You will benefit from “giving back”: Giving back implies that you have received. However, many who are struggling to make ends meet, stuck in an unsatisfying job with no chance for advancement, or lost on the road of life are still waiting to receive. This makes the idea of “giving back” pointless. People have a need to feel needed and useful, and until that need is met, the “giving back” part doesn’t play.
  2. You will share your unique skills: Everybody wants to feel like they have something special to offer. In fact, that is exactly what we are asked to define when we apply for a job: the unique value you, as an individual, can provide the organization. However, volunteer organizations are looking for just the opposite. Most openings for volunteers are jobs that require no experience and very little skill, such as shuffling papers, raking leaves, or distributing food. Anyone with an IQ higher than a zombie can do the work. To the organization, you are not a person but a resource to be used as they see fit.
  3. You will network with a group of like-minded people: People who volunteer have a large amount of time on their hands. From what I have observed, this means they are either retired, supported by a spouse, or unemployed. They may share your interest in whatever it is you are volunteering for, but they are not a representative cross-section of society. It is highly unlikely that your association will move beyond that day or two of working together because these folks are just as struggling and disconnected as you. Despite the warm fuzzies, you won’t receive anything that could boost your network.

Unfortunately, all of these are based on assumptions that don’t hold true for everyone, and shaming people into volunteering or enticing them with false promises is bound to backfire. Organizations that are wondering how they can recruit and retain more volunteers should look at what they’re offering and see if it matches up to their volunteers’ actual experience.

In case anyone is wondering, I have volunteered many, many times. I spent two years on a citizen committee for my town, three years as a Cub Scout assistant den leader, six years on a committee at my church, and six years working at my county fair. Before that, at various times and places, I have shoveled manure, sorted books, manned booths, served food, and collected canned goods, all as an unpaid volunteer. I did all these things because they needed doing and I have no regrets.

But none of these—with the possible exception of the church committee—have provided any of the alleged benefits listed above.

Just to be clear, by “volunteer” I’m not meaning volunteer firefighters, or physicians who volunteer during disasters or epidemics, or lawyers who work pro bono. These are trained professionals donating their skills. They are certainly doing good work and personally benefitting from doing so. Rather, I’m referring to the incessant call from countless directions to donate your valuable time.

I’m sure that many people have had very fulfilling volunteer experiences, and that’s fine. Perhaps my need for these intangible benefits is higher, so that when an experience does not deliver on its promises, I notice.

If somebody were to offer me the opportunity to be part of something that I deeply cared about and to contribute my skills to a good cause, then I might renew my interest in volunteering. Until then, don’t bother calling because I’m not signing up.

Thrown a Bone and Shown the Door

[Since today has become a national day of service, I thought I would share a post that I wrote two years ago about my ambivalence about volunteering. I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.]


Janey was nice. Janey was patient. But in the end, she–or rather, her nonprofit organization–just didn’t want me.

I think I handled it pretty well.

Moreover, it taught me something about the nature of institutional organizations. It was, as they say, a learning experience.walking-through-the-door-2

Here’s what happened: Last year, I set out to find an opportunity to get involved with something I deeply care about. Nature and the environment has always been of interest to me, as well as work in the public interest, which led me to the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, or Maryland PIRG.

I inquired about opportunities to volunteer, hoping to fulfill a need within the organization. While I didn’t explicitly say it, writing needed to be a key component of this arrangement. The dispassionate writing I do for a living can dull the creative edge, and I think my best writing is done when the topic is something that interests me. I could never be a great salesman, who could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo, but I can really push an idea if it fascinates me. This is not unusual for an introvert, and I embrace the characterization.

In addition, I wanted to feel that I was contributing and, in the process, honing my writing skills. If I was going to volunteer my time, it had to be something that worked for me too, with my skill set and my availability. With a good match, it could have been a working relationship that benefitted both of us.

When Janey, a coordinator from Maryland PIRG, finally contacted me, however, I felt like she wasn’t sure quite what to do with me. This surprised me, since nonprofits often bemoan the fact that they struggle to find adequate manpower and funding to support their missions. I would think that anyone with a talent to share and a passion for the cause could find a home there. Instead, I felt that I was creating an annoyance.

Specifically, I felt that Janey (not her real name) had to dig up a project for me to work on.  It wasn’t exactly busy-work, but neither did it seem central to Maryland PIRG’s core mission.  I’d hoped to get was some project that required in-depth analysis and well-crafted writing. What I got was a request to write a letter to the editor.

I suppose it’s unreasonable for me to expect someone I’ve never met to entrust me with important work, so I did the letter. But I’ve done many letters to the editor in the past, on my own initiative, and for the most part, they’ve provided little sense of accomplishment.

Furthermore, her response time was slower than what I expected, had I actually been offering to provide a valuable service to the group. In all the social and business transactions that I’ve been a part of throughout my life, it has nearly always been the case that the more interested someone is, the quicker and more enthusiastic the reaction.

Bottom line: I was being thrown a bone and shown the door.

Despite what we are taught to believe in college, the world of work does not treat us as individuals with a unique combination of talents and experience. Rather, we are just the sum total of our transferable skills. We are resources (human resources, right?), something reduced to its monetary value, modular and interchangeable.

Sadly, nonprofits are no different. Nonprofits will take a certain number of volunteers, but what they really want is money.  Money is fungible. Rather than having to match people’s talents to specific tasks that need doing, it is easier for an organization to take money. The effect is that the organization, despite having been started with good intentions, becomes just another institution.

I finished the letter to the editor and was able to get it published in a regional newspaper. Janey liked it (“this letter is really great,” she said). But when I was ready for another task, she asked for help marketing an event to show a movie about tax loopholes. This was not my skill set, and would’ve involved time I didn’t have to spend. I declined.  And she never wrote back.

My relationship with Janey was mildly thrilling but ultimately brief. It just wasn’t meant to be.

My Heady Soccer Tale (or How I Got a Concussion)

Photo: iStock/Getty

Photo: iStock/Getty

One minute I was running toward the soccer ball. The next, I was lying face up on the grass. What happened between those two moments has been erased from my memory.

Slowly, my awareness of the world came back, fading in like an old TV set that had just been turned on. I got up and saw the other kid also on the ground, holding his head. Somehow, as we were both going for the ball, we collided and hit our heads together. I didn’t know it yet, but we both had concussions.

Back in 1980, when I was 13, I had only a vague sense of what a concussion was. It sounded more serious than just two kids knocking heads, so I dismissed my injury and continued playing the game. I told the referee I was fine, and we got on with it.

My coach wasn’t much more informed, since he didn’t take me out of the game. My mom was concerned on the sidelines but she didn’t insist I see a doctor after the match. Taking cues from the adults in my life, I figured it was no big deal.

Concussions, though, have become a very big deal, especially those occurring during organized sports.

Former players in the National Football League have filed a major lawsuit claiming the league failed to effectively inform them of the risks of repeated concussions on the field. The NFL has recently begun to take this situation seriously, finding that retired players have a higher incidence of memory problems, depression, and dementia. The league now, in a settlement, has agreed to pay whatever is necessary to compensate retired players who suffer from these long-term neurological effects.

And recently, a new campaign has been launched to change the rules in youth soccer leagues to restrict kids younger than 14 from being able to head the ball, recognizing that jarring blows can affect brain development. The campaign is lead not by overly-cautious couch potatoes, but by former U.S. women’s soccer players. This increased attention to sports-related concussions would have been helpful back in 1980.


You see it all the time in movies and on TV: someone gets hit in the head with a heavy object and is out cold. Later, they wake up, shake it off, and go on their merry way. Reality is much different. In spite of how commonplace the term “concussion” seems to be, it is a form of brain injury and should be taken seriously.

The definition of concussion seems to be elusive. “Mild traumatic brain injury” is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it. It can happen either with or without an impact. It is mostly identified by its signs and symptoms, including:

  • headache,
  • changes in balance or coordination,
  • confusion,
  • amnesia,
  • fatigue,
  • nausea, or
  • loss of consciousness or a “blackout.”

The worst part is that symptoms don’t always appear right away, and repeated injuries have a cumulative effect. Children younger than high school age are especially vulnerable.

I support all of this new focus on concussions and how they affect the brain. I question, though, why it has taken this long. Why were we so uninformed in 1980? Is it because there were more vexing public health issues–like polio or measles or AIDS?

I also wonder what percentage of the population has been walking around with undiagnosed brain injury. Are there correlations between youthful concussions and failed potential or criminal behavior? Have the mentally impaired been running the show all these years? Are the memory problems that so many elderly people face really just a result of too many blows to the head from a rough-and-tumble childhood?

Additionally, while I’m in favor of efforts to make sports less damaging, I think that the the proposed ban on heading the ball in youth leagues is only a band-aid on a much larger issue. The serious concussions in soccer are not from performing headers but rather–as I can attest–from collisions with other players.


The day of my soccer concussion, I had a massive headache on the brink of nausea. Somebody (my coach?) told me that if I fell asleep, that was a bad sign, so I spent the rest of that Saturday lying on the couch to nurse my headache but never quite relaxing for fear I would doze off.

As for my memory of the incident itself, it never had a chance to form. Between the moment where I am running to the ball and the moment where I’m coming around on the field, there is nothing–retrograde amnesia, it’s called. My mind blipped from one point to the next, like when you skip forward on a digital recording, the discontinuity a sign that something was omitted.

By the next morning, I was feeling better. I don’t recall talking to a doctor about it, or really anyone. By that point in my life, I had been hit in the head or face or mouth so many times that it just seemed like normal part of growing up. I can recall having had at least two other concussions prior to this one.

On Monday, the guys at school asked how I was feeling.

“Fine, I guess,” I said nonchalantly.

“Really?” one friend said. “Because you gave the other guy a concussion.” Only then did it occur to me that maybe I had one too.

I wonder now about the long term effects. Am I depressed more than average? Do I have cognitive impairments that I would not have had otherwise? Am I vulnerable to mental aging more than is typical? I’ve managed to turn out okay, but would things have been different?

I’m not sure where this leaves me. I love soccer just the way it is, in all its free-form, democratic madness. And I was just a boy being a typical boy.

But occasionally, when I think of reasons for my struggles in life, thoughts frequently bring me back to my childhood concussions.