As our young boy continues his journey to becoming a man, he enters the third phase that Robert Bly describes in his book “Iron John”. Previously we’ve discussed the bonding to and separation from the mother and bonding to and separation from the father. Now we come to what I believe to be the most important phase of the journey: the arrival of the male mentor.
In the fairy tale, Iron John serves as the male mentor for the boy. He begins this process somewhat at the boy’s request, carrying him away from the castle after the boy frees him. In this, Iron John also serves to help the boy separate from both his mother and his father. Once in the forest, Iron John gives the boy trials to undertake, focused on developing discipline for him. When the boy fails the trials, in part due to wounds he received in the past (the fairy tale demonstrates these as physical wounds, a sore finger; Robert Bly and I agree that most likely the wounds are metaphors for psychological wounds), Iron John sends him on his way, but promises to always be there if the boy needs help.
From this portion, we see the primary characteristics of a mentor. I will outline those, then describe my own experience with my male mentor which, I hope, will demonstrate the need. Finally, I will give some advice to those serving as mentors and to those who are being mentored.
Although seemingly gruff, Iron John is a stellar mentor for this boy. He helps him to separate from his parents, something that before he arrived was seemingly impossible. As a boy matures, he is always looking for a hero, for a role model. This is why boys idolize sports heroes, military men, and firefighters, or in the negative realm, gangsters, criminals. They are looking for someone to be their hero. Initially, this is their parents, but as they grow up, they need additional older external influences in their lives to help them develop into the man they will be.
This is why mentors are so important. If older men do not step in, younger men are left to initiate them, and as Robert Bly states (and I have repeated many times), “manhood doesn’t happen by itself … the active intervention of older men means that older men welcome the younger man into the ancient, mythologized, instinctive male world” (p. 15). Geoffrey Canada, in his book “Reaching Up for Manhood”, describes what can happen when young boys are left without older male figures. They turn to those that are a few years older than them for initiation and approval, something that those boys are also incapable of providing, thus wrecking the developmental process.
How many mentors should a boy have? Ideally, they will have more than one, because as my mentor once told me “Mentors reproduce their weaknesses in those they are mentoring”. To be well-rounded, boys need more than just one mentor in their life.
So, Iron John provides a picture of the additional male role model, who helps the boy see beyond his parent’s home. Additionally, he gives the boy a sense of mission and purpose, assigning him a task to complete. When the boy fails, Iron John gives him two more chances. Finally, Iron John recognizes that the boy needs to go outside of the safety of the forest into the real world to make his own way. A good mentor does this. He challenges his protege (I’m not a fan of the word mentee), provides him with the tools necessary for success, then allows him to go to make his own way. Additionally, he recognizes when his primary work is complete and doesn’t cling to his protege. But, and this is important, the mentor is always there, always available for advice and help. Throughout the remainder of the story, we see Iron John there, ready to help and sharing in the boy’s triumphs and trials. A good mentor is always there.
|Kevin (left) and me (right) at a conference
In my own life, I’ve been privileged enough to have a fantastic mentor – Kevin. I first met Kevin as a young undergraduate, who, if you asked the people around me, cared for only myself and was certainly not a mature man. Over the last five years, Kevin mentored and discipled me, teaching me how to be a strong Christian man, an honest and hard-working employee, and a dedicated and loving husband. Our relationship began with him pushing and challenging me; then, as I learned and grew, we both sharpened one another. I referenced in the Separation from the Mother posting how Kevin helped me to established an adult relationship with my mother. He still to this day provides me with counsel and advice, and even though we’re not meeting on a weekly basis or even in the same area, I know that he is always there if I need him. Without Kevin, I would have let other 20-22 year old males define what it means to be a man for me, something they had no experience in or knowledge of.
In his book, “The Element”, Dr. Ken Robinson, one of the world’s leading thinkers on creativity and education, describes four roles of the mentor:
– Recognition – Mentors identify skills that others haven’t seen in their proteges.
– Encouragement – “Mentors lead us to believe that we can achieve something that seemed improbable or impossible to us before we met them” (pp. 181-182).
– Facilitating – Mentors help us to grow those skills they helped us find.
– Stretching – Mentors help us to not settle, but to always push our limits.
I know Kevin was not a 100% perfect mentor; there is only one of those who has ever lived. However, from his example, I have some suggestions for older men who are serving (or hopefully begin serving) as mentors:
– Know yourself. You need to know your weaknesses and strengths. This means that you need to be reflecting as much, if not more than, your protege. If you’re not able to help your protege grow in an area, know someone that can. Don’t be afraid to ask for outside help.
– Know your protege. You would not believe how helpful it was to have Kevin be able to look deeper than what I was saying and identify where my thoughts and feelings were truly coming from. He saved me a lot of struggle and embarrassment by pointing out the root of some issues I was having.
– Never stop improving. You can’t settle and rest on what you’ve got. If you stop learning and reflecting, your protege can only grow so much.
– Be selective. Just because someone approaches you as a mentor, does not mean that you have to accept. You need to delve into the rationale behind it and make sure that you are the most beneficial person for them. If you don’t have time, or don’t share similar interests (remember, men relate shoulder to shoulder, through activities), then help them find someone who is better suited for them.
– Be available. This means that if you are a mature man who has come into his own, please, please mentor someone. Additionally, if you’re going to do it, be there for them, not just when it’s convenient for you. Mentoring takes time and effort.
For those boys who are looking for that mentor, I have four recommendations:
– Be selective. Just as mentors should be selective, so should you. Find a man whom you respect and whom you have seen doing good in his workplace, his home, and his community.
– Be FAT. Kevin always described the best protege as FAT: Faithful, Available, Teachable. Show up when you say you will; come ready to learn and engage; and be open to knowledge. If you can’t be FAT, then you’re not using your time or your mentor’s time well.
– Engage for the long run. Yes, some mentors may come and go, but you need a male mentor who will be a role model and guide for you for a long time. You can’t jump from mentor to mentor, because you’ll have to establish that relationship all over again each time.
– Be honest. If you are going to lie to your mentor, that doesn’t help you. For him to honestly guide you into masculinity, he needs to know your struggles, your interests, what you wish to become. And if you don’t know all of these, tell him. More than likely, he can help.
A boy needs to learn how to be a man from multiple sources. His dad and mom are just two of these, and once he moves out from under their roof, he needs a mentor to guide him. If you are someone without a positive mentor in your life, I encourage you to find one. If you’re having trouble, I would be happy to help how I can. And, if you are a mature man (respectful, reverent, and responsible), you owe it to those who have mentored you and to all those who need men in their lives to be mentors.
To men stepping up, reaching over to younger men, and helping them up into masculinity,