This past week I learned of the recent death of the first person I ever consciously identified as a mentor. His name was Don Evans. He was my professor of Philosophy and Religion, among other courses, at the University of Toronto in the mid-1980’s. He had been on my mind a lot this January. I didn’t really know why, except that I was feeling some regrets at losing touch with him in the late 90’s. It has felt, over the past year or so, like I have circled around once again to encounter who I was when I first met him, with new layers of growth and understanding.
I would have liked to share my journey with him, and to express my gratitude to him for what he gave me. Even more, I would have liked to get to know him again and to hear about his life over the past twenty years. When I knew him I was too young to have a mature relationship of reciprocal compassion. Instead I had the privilege of being a student, and later a mentee, to be a sponge that soaked up his offerings of information, values, compassion, spiritual guidance, and perspective.
It was bitter-sweet to read his obituary and to learn how widely appreciated he was, and how blessed he was in his family. When I first met Don, he wasn’t Don to me, but Professor Evans. I was 18 years old (barely) and still completely unclear about my direction in university, or life for that matter.
The first course I took with him was the Philosophy of Human Sexuality, which was a very clever title to get university students to voluntarily study ethical philosophy and some early psychology. Beyond the cleverness, however, he was kind and compassionate. I was taking this course with my boyfriend (naturally!) and Don remembered and took an interest in the evolution of our relationship through all the years I knew him. When I was 20, when we caught up with each other casually on campus one day, and I told him we were getting married, Don put on his pastoral hat and insisted that I recognize the deeper value of the ritual, and that I should expect the change from living together to mean something. My immature view of it was that a wedding was just something formal. I don’t know if he ever realized that his brief conversation that day held me to a vision of commitment and intimacy that I’m still figuring out. Perhaps he was just having a fatherly moment, and feeling as apprehensive as my parents were at our decision!
The biggest difference between a role model and a mentor is that you can have a role model that you never meet in person. A mentor knows you. I can look back now and see several important people who have been beautiful mentors to me. The best have been those who were quite conscious of their role. Teachers can be mentors, but aren’t always. A teacher can limit their sharing to the information they are trying to pass on. A mentor also includes an awareness of the social or emotional needs of their protégé. A mentor gives you a glimpse of what it’s like to do something with grace, with skill, responsibility, and with wisdom. Sometimes they are the ones to be honest or challenging with you when friends or family can only be encouraging. Mentors often hold us to a higher standard, or to a discipline that they know is necessary for our growth or development.
Life transitions often require mentors
After that first course, I also studied the Philosophy of Religion with Don, and eventually joined his meditation classes outside of the university curriculum. He was the first person who introduced me to practices that were truly self-nurturing. I first learned the power of metaphor and visual imagery in his meditations. What he taught me eventually meshed with what I learned in poetry and literature. Don helped me understand that imagery has power beyond and deeper than the “I like it “ or “I don’t like it” distinctions of skilled or unskilled poetry or art. It has power in our bones and in how we live our lives. The right image is able to draw us further forward, plunge us deeper into an experience, or inspire us when we are at our lowest.
I lost touch with Don at just about the same time as I lost touch with myself. It wasn’t a sudden event or a rupture; I just drifted away – across the country, and into a new stage that required different things from me. My focus shifted into the rigours of intense parenting, and away from nurturing my own spirit. It has taken me a long time to find my way back. Other teachers, other paths, and even new mentors have found me and helped me, but there, back at the beginning, was Don. How sad and yet sweet it is to find him again now. May your rest be only as tranquil as you wish it, old friend. Ido hope that I will meet you again, in one form or another.
Who are your mentors?
Spend a little time this month with your mentors – those in memory or those who hold you now. What have they brought you? And what do you bring to those who follow after you?