Every Monday morning for the past ve years a group of us meet for breakfast and discuss a variety of topics. What started as a one-time breakfast meeting with former workplace colleagues to catch up on retirement progress, has evolved into a continuing peer mentoring activity that relies on an unusual structure to manage engagement.
In her article, Group Mentoring: Strategies for Success (Peer Bulletin 205), Lois Zachary identied peer group mentoring as one of the three most commonly employed models for achieving learning goals. Our group meets all of the criteria that she identied as associated with peer mentoring, including (1) having similar interests or needs; (2) setting our own agenda; (3) engaging in self-management and self-direction; (4) managing the focus of the discussion to make sure all members’ needs are met; and (5) ensuring that each group member benets from the knowledge, expertise, and experience of the other group members.
What’s surprising or unusual, however, about our peer mentoring group is that we have yet to discuss, consciously review, or deliberately implement any of the ve criteria Dr. Zachary identied. In other words, we didn’t review options and select one that we preferred. Instead, our structure and process has evolved over time. They may continue to change, but both seem to have been achieved by what can best be called a ‘happy accident.’
Using the happy accident approach for developing a peer group meeting structure may not be suitable for everyone. It can severely test the patience of those who prefer a certain degree of structure, a set agenda, or an urge to ‘get things done.’
As an experienced group leader in other contexts, I’m (happily) surprised that this peer mentoring group has been so successful, despite violating some of the standard principles associated with effective group management. For example, a lower level of structure in most groups typically leads to low levels of participation, or inconsistent engagement by various members of the group. In our group, participation is equally distributed. Each member introduces topics; some members bring materials or resources to the group to share with the others; and everyone in the group contributes to every discussion (whether they know anything about it or not).
Low structure can also make it easier for some group members to dominate discussion or process in a way the meets their needs only. While the specic interests of a particular group member may serve as a topic discussion starter, the person who initiated the topic typically asks each of the other group members for their reactions or ideas about that topic. Group members also respond with their own viewpoint, whether they are specically asked or not. Responsibility for leadership is distributed evenly between all group members.
Another problem that can lead to difculties in groups is the degree to which the group has established a verbalized consensus on the group’s purpose. Many groups have no way of determining the degree to which they are achieving their purpose or desired results without an overall objective. This lack of clarity typically leads to low engagement, inconsistent attendance, or dropping out completely.
Although we’ve never spoken directly about our purpose, the fact that we have been meeting consistently for ve years (with time out during certain months for holidays), indicates that the model we have developed is satisfying, effective, and successful.
The Mindfulness Process
Our current way of interacting with each other has been repeated enough times that it is possible to describe some of the elements that have contributed to the success of our peer mentoring group. If I had to come up with one term or phrase that would characterize our meetings, I would use the term ‘mindfulness.’ Our interactions seem to (1) show conscious awareness or willingness to explore our current thoughts, feelings, and opinions; (2) seek alternative views or be open and curious about the views of others; and (3) resist any tendency toward judgment and instead focus on acceptance; and (4) be willing to include a sense of presence and authenticity.
Jon Kabat-Zinn has written extensively about mindfulness and the impact it has on stress reduction, and Peer Resources Network member Doug Silsbee has centered mindfulness as a key to successful coaching interactions. While we did not purposely establish a mindfulness perspective or process in our group, it has evolved in a way to be our most consistent way of interacting with each other.
While variations occur in any meeting, here are the most consistent mindfulness elements of our peer group dialogue.
Bring it Up
Many of our discussions have to do with the circumstances associated with aging, health, exercise, mood, and medical or alternative treatments. These topics probably have more to do with the fact that all the group members are over 65. But many discussions are initiated around ideas that come from books we’re reading, current events, things we’ve discovered online, or past experiences.
Regardless of the topic, the initiator typically takes some time to share, explain or expand on the topic, and, if appropriate, bring up any inner dialogue and feelings about it. Sometimes this can lead to catastrophizing, making it seem like disaster is imminent or immense. Typically when this happens it is also followed by what might be considered a creative awareness, where the current topic seems related to some past experience, fear or action.
Whatever path the initiator takes with the topic, there is a pause where that person asks the other group members for their reaction, assessment, or comment.
Catch and Release
At this point various group members express their understanding of or experience with the topic. This may include seeking clarication, sharing a similar experience, or drawing upon their own wisdom or learning.
The intention is to acknowledge the content, feelings and perspective of the initiator, while at the same time releasing the initiator from having to hold on to negative or stressful feelings, particularly those that facilitate catastrophizing or feeling alone.
Not all topics feature emotional content. Some are more idea- or intellectually- centered. These are often discussed with the intention of focusing on meaning- making questions or comments such as ‘What do you make of that?’ or ‘This is what I gained from it when it happened to me.’
Sometimes group members share what action they have taken when faced with a similar circumstance. However, we are not what I would consider a ‘result/action’ oriented group. That is, there doesn’t appear to be a drive on any group member’s part to gure out what to do about something. This doesn’t prevent members from asking for advice or ideas, and this often becomes a way to draw upon the wisdom and experience of group members.
Bring it In
More than 50 years ago I had a high school coach who at the end of each practice would say, “Okay fellas, bring it in.” That was the signal that the physical practice was over and we were to gather in a group around the coach. The coach would then provide feedback or comments to the players on what he observed that day, and he would encourage us to express our gratitude to other players for what we were experiencing that day.
This wasn’t always easy as some of the conicts between us led to some nasty, snarky or sarcastic ways of doing what the coach asked us to do. At the same time, when another player authentically expressed gratitude or appreciation, it had a powerful and lasting impact.
That early experience had such a profound impact on me that I’ve carried the experience through into my personal and professional life. Using it as part of the peer mentoring group seemed like a natural and useful thing to do. Fortunately, it’s contagious. I only tried it a few times before it became a fairly common aspect of the interactions for all of us within our group. We often nish our meetings or topic discussions with a type of ‘bring it in’ activity. It’s not so much a formal procedure as it is a way to help each other replace negative thoughts or feelings with things we appreciate or are grateful for. These more personal comments to each other also allow us to express our compassion and support for each other.
Not all our group meetings follow the pattern of mindfulness, nor does each meeting always include the three elements described above. Sometimes our focus is on recalling a past event or experience, sharing stories about family adventures, agreeing that our former workplace was a better organization when we worked there, or telling jokes or humourous anecdotes. I’m convinced that the exibility in both agenda-setting and how we manage the discussion as well as the personal meaning, knowledge, and support we gain from and give to each other is the glue that has attracted us to continue to meet with each other on a regular basis.
The size and consistency of our group also matters. For the most part there are four of us, sometimes ve; and from time-to-time one of the members brings a guest. While we might be able to accomplish mindfulness with more members, a larger group might lead to inconsistent attendance and less opportunity for follow- up, and less likelihood or willingness to tune-in to our way of being with each other.
Peer mentoring, particularly for small groups of older members of a society, go far back in history. The Knights of the Roundtable, Tribal Councils, Elder Chiefs, and other forms of ancient governing practices were all examples of peer mentoring.
Peer mentoring for seniors can be a powerful way to stimulate brain functioning and learning, meet social connection needs, and enable seniors to continue to grow and develop. Could others use our system? Possibly, but the key would be how to develop a mindfulness approach that would work for that particular group. From our experience, we stumbled into it by happy accident. There are many paths to a mindful or fullling way to participate in peer mentoring. We’re grateful we found ours.
“Conversation was never begun at once, nor in a hurried manner. No one was quick with a question, no matter how important, and no one was pressed for an answer. A pause giving time for thought was the truly courteous way of beginning and conducting a conversation. Silence was meaningful with the Lakota, and his granting a space of silence to the speech-maker and his own moment of silence before talking was done in the practice of true politeness and regard for the rule that, “thought comes before speech.”
~ Luther Standing Bear (1868-1939)
Ogala Sioux Chief
I‘m outraged, saddened, and distressed about the alleged child abuse events that happened in Pennsylvania. I’m not referring to who was fired or for what reasons, or to the grand jury investigation report (available online) that found so many people complicit in the pedophile crimes, or that it took way too long to discover this criminal behaviour.
Although I find these things disturbing and disgusting, I’m also concerned about what role mentoring or “alleged” mentoring played in this series of criminal acts, and what impact this might have on the future of recruiting mentors, as well as encouraging children and youth to have mentors in their lives.
Let’s be clear. What the accused man, who had a lengthy career as an assistant coach at the University of Pennsylvania, allegedly did to his multiple victims can in no way be considered mentoring. But he was the founder of a non-profit, youth-serving foundation that enabled him be a mentor and have unlimited access to children.
Through this youth-serving foundation, the accused child abuser was able to connect with dozens of youth who, along with their parents, expected, but did not receive, mentoring. Instead, they were connected with an unsafe individual whose primary aim was to find vulnerable children and youth to meet his pedophilia needs.
According to a statement from the Board of Directors of this foundation that is on their website, a period of six years elapsed from the time at which the CEO of foundation was informed of this pedophile’s inappropriate behaviour by Penn State authorities, and when the accused was banned from involvement in the foundations programs involving children. Six years!
The foundation’s statement also claims that “all the alleged incidents (of abuse) occurred outside our programs and events.” What isn’t said in their statement is how many children and youth he procured through the foundation to fuel his alleged criminal activities even if they occurred ‘outside’ of their program. (Editor’s note: After this article went to press the statement on the foundation’s website has been revised to indicate that the CEO of the foundation has resigned; the foundation intends to conduct its own internal investigation, and has admitted to complicity in providing children for the suspected pedophile.)
The reason this terrible connection concerns me as a mentor, grandparent and mentoring professional, is that mentoring youth has become and continues to be one of the most powerful ways of assisting young people to be successful in life. Virtually all youth-serving agencies today include a mentoring program that connects safe, caring and responsible adult volunteers with children or youth in a learning-oriented relationship.
As one of the pioneers of creating these relationships, and the co-architect of Canada’s most successful national mentoring program, we know what it takes to ensure that such programs are credible, trustworthy, and effective. If a few simple principles are not included in mentoring program policies and they fail to be closely monitored by program leaders, then it is likely that predators, abusers, and bullies will become involved and take advantage of some of our most vulnerable youth.
Such was the case in Pennsylvania. A youth-serving agency enabled an alleged serial pedophile to engage in authorized mentoring relationships with dozens of children and youth. The consequences of his actions have not only violated and traumatized many young people and their families, but have also led to the firings of others who had knowledge of his acts yet apparently failed to take the necessary steps to apprehend and stop further assaults.
Further disciplinary action, prosecution, and legal challenges involving others will depend on a more comprehensive investigation.
The Failure of Screening Techniques
How did the mentoring agency in Pennsylvania fail to prevent these criminal acts? Like many other mentoring agencies their intention is to screen out anyone who could possibly do harm to their clients. The primary way most mentoring agencies accomplish this is by having every applicant submit to a criminal record check requirement and provide a number of personal references.
But neither of these two methods is foolproof. For example, only someone who has been arrested in a jurisdiction covered by the police check will be flagged when the check is conducted. In addition, persons who have been questioned during an investigation which may have turned out to be inconclusive or resulted in too little evidence to bring to court will not be flagged. Even convicted pedophiles who change their names and move to different locations, states, provinces or countries can also defeat the intention of a criminal record check.
There is also some controversy about the cost of conducting criminal record check investigations. Who should pay for them? The already overworked police agencies often will not charge a non-profit agency for this additional work, but in other cases there is a fee associated with conducting the check. The cost factor often trumps the thoroughness, follow-through, follow-up, or continuation of scrutiny. Thus a person who passed the check the first time, but who is subsequently convicted unbeknownst to the agency, may have continued access to youth to victimize.
Most importantly the lack of coordination between local, provincial, national, and international policing units limits accessibility to complete records. Consequently the record of a pedophile convicted and imprisoned in one jurisdiction may not appear in another. What’s even more frightening is that it is likely that most pedophiles are not apprehended, and continue to engage in their criminal activity for long periods of time. The pedophile in Pennsylvania would have very easily been successful in defeating the standard criminal record check system used in that state.
The Failure of References
Letters of recommendation from associates are equally limited in their value as a safety assurance method. Prior to being discovered for his actions, the man apprehended in Pennsylvania, who was also a well-known college football coach, would have been able to obtain letters of recommendation from many of the people who eventually reported him for disturbing behaviour with children. These letters from very well-known and respected individuals would have carried great weight and clearly been influential in selecting him as a mentor.
Most pedophiles are highly skilled at hiding and conducting their criminal activities in private so that their immediate family, friends, neighbours and co-workers would be shocked, stunned, and in disbelief to learn of these horrible acts. Prior to being discovered, pedophiles, particularly those already involved as sports coaches or other youth-oriented activities, would have no problem asking others to provide letters of recommendation.
While hopefully rare, there is one other problem with letters of recommendation. When asked to write such a letter, some people agree to do so even if they have reservations about the person. The letter writer, like others in society, may even have some observation or evidence of inappropriate or questionable action of the letter requester, but the letter writer doesn’t want to make trouble, get someone else in trouble, or cause themselves some additional difficulty because of their suspicions or gut feelings. There are many instances where letter writers are not honest in their letters for fear of retribution, threats or violence. Few people are willing to take on the responsibility or consequences of being a whistleblower.
This not an uncommon circumstance and it often contributes to pedophiles employed as teachers or coaches being transferred to other schools, agencies or jurisdictions with decent letters of recommendation from previous employers or co-workers. This unwillingness to take a stand and do what’s right is one of the factors that enabled a teacher/principal in British Columbia to move from school to school prior to being convicted and imprisoned as a pedophile.
Practices to Promote Safety
The inadequacy of criminal record checks and letters of recommendations to screen out pedophiles (as well as other immoral or criminal behaviours) does not mean they should be abandoned. The deficiencies in these screening methods have been addressed by Friends for Youth, a mentoring organization in California, that published a set of comprehensive guidelines for ensuring a stronger screening process that goes beyond simple background checks.
Screening methods need to be combined with at least three other mentoring program practices that are designed to keep children and youth safe from predators: training, boundaries, and monitoring.
In-Person Training. All volunteer mentors must participate fully in face-to-face orientation and training, led by skilled and experienced mentor program personnel. While the potential mentors are learning certain skills associated with being an effective mentor, the program leader has an opportunity to observe directly how the potential mentor responds, interacts with others, and how they perform in role play situations covering a variety of areas essential to mentoring effectiveness.
In addition, orientation and training for potential mentors provides the program with an opportunity to discuss with and gain commitment from the volunteers with regards to child abuse and neglect reporting standards and requirements.
Although this scrutiny that can take place during orientation and training is not foolproof, it provides the training leaders with information about individual candidates, their abilities and attitudes, and assists them to develop a more refined working relationship with each potential mentor which will be essential for the success of the next two necessary program practices.
Clear Boundaries. Probably no other behaviour was a greater signal of trouble in the Pennsylvania pedophile case than the violation of appropriate mentor program boundaries. In no circumstances should gifts, money, un-escorted trips, sleeping in the same room, or dozens of other transgressions be allowed or tolerated in a mentoring relationship. These are immediate red flags, and the prohibition of such acts must be communicated fully not only to the mentors, but also to all those involved, including parents, guardians, the children and youth being mentored, and other personnel responsible for making mentoring successful.
Every mentoring program must include such boundary discussions in publicity, recruiting, and training. This boundary element appeared to be completely missing in the Pennsylvania mentoring organization that enabled a pedophile to connect with children and youth, as the pedophile provided extensive gifting, trips, game tickets, showering together, and sleep-overs in his home.
All of these boundary violations, while on the surface appearing to be an indication of caring, opportunity and generosity, have, in reality, great potential to establish a highly troubling conflict and trauma for youth. The horror that was created for children in the Pennsylvania case was dramatically enabled by these boundary violations.
Monitoring and Supervision. While boundaries are essential, they must also be enforced. All mentoring relationships that connect children and youth with adults must be closely monitored and supervised by qualified personnel until which time the mentoring program leader can express confidence and trust in an un-monitored or less frequently supervised relationship.
Sometimes this progressive trust approach means that mentoring relationships must begin in public places such as school class or activity rooms with a third party present or able to observe from time to time. If the mentoring relationship is activity-based, that is, the mentor and youth attend a game together or play some kind of game together, these activities must be supervised or accompanied by another adult.
At some point mentor program leaders have to trust the judgment of the mentor as to what is appropriate. However, every mentoring program must have a policy in place that requires the mentor to discuss potential risks with the program supervisor prior to engaging in such behaviour.
Not all potential boundary violations can be determined ahead of time. However, two simple questions a mentor can ask ahead of time can identify almost any action that has potential risk: (1) Will the behaviour be approved, encouraged, and appreciated by the child’s parent/guardian? and (2) If local authorities learned of this behaviour, would it be supported and encouraged?
Continuous Evaluation. Monitoring also includes conducting continuous evaluations of interactions, relationships, and outcomes of the youth-mentor interactions. Typically, these assessments are managed through interviews or phone calls with both the mentor and the youth separately and together.
These reviews are particularly essential at the beginning of the mentoring relationship and must be conducted with skill and sensitivity in order to maintain confidentiality or privacy, while at the same time giving the mentor program leader the confidence that the relationship is progressing appropriately. Where boundaries may have been accidentally or innocently crossed, the program leader can immediately take appropriate action to ensure future compliance.
Fortunately, most youth-based mentoring programs in North America pay strict attention to these few simple and basic principles. Many add other ideas to even further reduce the likelihood that the safety or children in their care will be compromised.
It is not clear from the website of the foundation in Pennsylvania that they have implemented any or all of the basic and essential program practices mentioned here. But it is clear that their public face on the Internet provides too little information to encourage the confidence and trust of parents, the public, or other mentoring professionals. What is available on their website is not sufficient to fully inform and educate parents their children will be safe and benefit from a mentoring relationship.
The Illusion of Safety
The success of at-risk youth mentoring programs and services throughout the 1980s to late 1990s, led to proliferation of extensive government-initiated funding opportunities in the USA. While thousands of agencies took advantage of this financial support to create or add mentoring programs, too few paid attention to implementing all the safety requirements outlined here.
Most of these newcomer agencies used the police record check, letters of reference and personal interviews as their primary method of attending to safety. Shoestring budgets, the hiring of inexperienced but well-meaning staff, timelines that met funding requirements in place of appropriate and known standards, revolving personnel, and policy shortcuts, typically resulted in few of these organizations actually engaging in thorough screening, comprehensive personal training, progressive monitoring and on-going evaluation.
Millions of children currently have or have had safe, responsible, caring mentors that they connect with on a regular basis. Mentoring continues to be one of the most powerful ways we can help each other in improve our lives in society and accomplish great heights. Let’s keep it great by ensuring that all mentoring programs pay attention to these proven principles and practices.
“Even very caring, responsible adults can be lulled into complacency by the ‘Illusion Of Safety.’ The Illusion of Safety happens in settings or situations where people feel so relaxed, sheltered, or distracted that they stop focusing on ensuring that their children have adequate supervision, understanding, and skills to avoid potential dangers.”
~ Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Executive Director ~
“Most predators look like you or me and act perfectly normal. They’ve perfected the ‘mask of sanity.’ They do less well trying to respect the boundaries of others. They won’t take ‘no’ for an answer—especially when you’ve already answered a few times. If you feel you are not being heard, you might be dealing with someone who is dangerous, not just annoying. Predators also usually have trouble imitating the most human of traits—empathy.”
~ Dr. Keith Ablow, Psychiatrist and Life Coach ~
“Many [mentoring] programs are struggling with relatively few resources and insufficient personnel to provide mentors with ongoing support and supervision…. These observations underscore the need for careful screening and training of mentors and for the provision of ample resources to support the development and management of mentoring programs.” (Source)
~ Jean Rhodes, Mentor expert, author, and Professor of Psychology, University of Massachusetts ~
“Even though references are commonly used to screen and select employees, they have not been successful in predicting future employee success….If given the chance to choose their own references, even undesirables such as Nazi leader Adolph Hitler, serial killer Ted Bundy, and terrorist Abu Nidal would be able to find three people who would provide them with favorable references.”
~ Michael Aamodt, Devon Bryan, and Alan Whitcomb. (1993). Predicting Performance with Letters of Recommendation. Public Personnel Management,22, 81-90. ~
“It may be that your sole purpose in life is to serve as a warning to others.”
~ Grey Owl, Tribal leader and mentor ~
Many people ask about the origin of the term mentor. One story is commonly cited in most mentoring books, articles and Internet sites, but it’s more likely that this frequently-told tale is just one author copying the details from secondary sources. Most writers don’t have the ability to translate from the original sources, and so it’s possible that a myth has become reality.
We’ve done considerable research on original sources, perused the archives of ancient libraries, and visited the sites associated with five stories that purport to claim the origin of the term. Here are the five stories.
|In Homer’s Odyssey, Mentor is a trusted friend to whom Ulysses leaves the care of his household when he departs for the Trojan War (a ten-year battle). The goddess Athena assumes the form of Mentor and cares for Ulysses’ son, Telemachus, until the war’s conclusion. Some variations of this story state that she actually accompanies Telemachus on his journey to search for his father at the end of the war. Some variations describe Mentor as a man. This story has reached mythical proportions and is probably the most widely-cited story, but how many modern writers have actually read the Odyssey in its original Greek version?
|In 1698 François Fénelon was appointed by King Louis XIV as a tutor to the King’s grandson, the Duke of Burgundy. He provided instruction to his pupil through his didactic epic, Le Adventures de Télémaque (1699), the most popular book written in the 18th century. Fénelon uses the term “sage counselor” to describe his main character, the goddess Minerva who appears as Mentor. The book is clearly an imitation of Homer’s The Odyssey, and the lessons expounded in the book by Mentor are both more educational than Homer’s Mentor and directed towards guiding his pupil in how to become a peaceful and wise monarch. The political views that Fénelon put in the mouth of Mentor, however, offended the King’s position on these same issues. As a result Fénelon was forced to leave the employment of the King for less challenging activities and many of his accomplishments were erased from court records.
|In ancient Africa, prior to the time of the Greek and Roman invasions, when a child was born, each village shared the responsibility for raising and educating the child into the customs and traditions associated with that village. This practice continues today and has become the rallying mantra: “It takes a village to raise a child.” But a more detailed examination of this ancient practice revealed that while the child had contact with every member of the village, there was always one older child (not a family member) who would be assigned the responsibility to ask questions and listen carefully to the younger child. In Swahili (one of the oldest languages on our planet), this questioning person was called, “Habari gani menta” which, in English, means, the person who asks “What’s happening?”
|La Grotte de Niaux is a prehistoric cave located high in the Pyrenees in southern France. After walking through the silent and womb-like stillness, a visitor emerges into a large, domed space filled with ceiling paintings, estimated to have been created somewhere between 12,000 and 9,000 BC. While most of the paintings depict horses and bison, there is one theme that is repeated in many places. This painting shows a group of men taking children to what at that time was considered the edge or end of their physical world. The men exhort the children to be brave and expand their reach beyond the borders of the present world. Some believe that the origin of the term “mentor” comes from what has been loosely translated in these ancient depictions as “men” taking children on a “tour.”
|Although Odin was the chief god in the Norse mythology, at around 550 AD there was a small group of Vikings who pledged exclusive allegiance to Thor, son of Odin and god of thunder, the sky and fertility. Thor had a reputation of being particularly fierce and brutal towards his enemies, and so did his group of dedicated followers. When plundering a village or settlement, they would kill every man, woman, and child, as well as any livestock that they couldn’t eat or carry away. However, before executing their hapless victims, these fierce brutes would choose one male child to become a member of their clan. One of the older Vikings would be assigned to teach and train the boy in their ways and customs, and in this manner the child would become one of the feared “men of Thor”. The word “mentor” is believed to have originated from this bizarre relationship between the captured boy and his Viking custodian.|
Watching the live videos, listening to the news updates, and reading about the extent of destruction, loss of life, and potential nuclear catastrophe that happened in Japan last year (2011) has been overwhelming, disturbing, and frightening. While we have considerable empathy for the Japanese people—particularly our colleagues who are members of the Japanese Peer Support Association—we also live on an island that is in close proximity to a major earthquake fault line, and is also open to massive waves of water rolling across the Pacific Ocean.
Our local TV-stations reinforced this anxiety by posing different scenarios about what might happen in our city should the earth shift. Local stores advertised specials for “earthquake preparedness kits;” and maps appeared in the newspaper showing which of our neighbourhoods would be underwater from the upheaval of the mighty Pacific.
The possibility that Mother Nature could unleash yet another destructive force similar to the one that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand as well as many cities in Japan and that would place my family, my loved ones, my friends and thousands of others in jeopardy is not exactly a confidence building thought. But at the same time such anxiety leads to finding ways to make meaning of the events and cleanse the toxic impact such news has on my emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.
Over the years, one of the most productive ways I’ve discovered for de-stressing and restoring my understanding of the world and my role in it, is to reflect on what I’m learning as a result of current events or life circumstances, and identify life themes that I can use to improve my learning and strengthen my sense of personal wisdom.
Here are four of the principles I’ve learned (or re-learned) so far as a result of recent world events. These may be different from what other Peer Resources Network members have learned, but I hope that the method (reflecting on what you’ve learned), and the specifics of the four principles can help others who may also be struggling with the emotional, physical and spiritual impact of recent events.
1. We are stewards of the Earth. We may not be able to tame the most significant and overpowering phenomena that Mother Earth sends our way, but we can use the experience, no matter how horrifying or devastating, to consider how we can make the Earth a better place to live. Whether such consideration leads to working on our own development, cooperating with others, or leading a nation, we can create our own “bucket list” of what matters most to us, what we want our legacy to be, and what we can do to “make it so.”
Canadian astronaut Julie Payette described the responsibility for stewardship of our planet this way: “The Earth is absolutely magnificent when seen from space. It sparkles like a jewel against a background of infinite space. Its earth tones and blue and white colours take your breath away. When I saw the Earth from high up, I became more aware of how precious our planet is, that it supports seven billion human beings and countless plant and animal species, and that it is the only place we know of in the universe (at least for the time being) where such an abundance of life is possible. The Earth is the only known place in the universe that can support life. It is up to us to take care of it.”
And before space travel was even possible Canadian philosopher and futurist
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) said, “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”
2. We are all members of the same tribe. Technology has given us an unprecedented ability to learn about life-threatening events around the globe, 24-hours a day. Even if we are not directly in the zone or path of the destruction, our separation from others on the planet has become so slim as a result of global business practices and Internet communication that we are bound to have friends, relatives, or colleagues impacted directly by the catastrophe.
While technology may contribute to increased opportunity for anxiety, it also contributes to increased opportunity to experience empathy. Learning and re-learning what it’s like to be in the shoes of others is the glue that holds us together while celebrating our diversity. It is our way of reaching out, taking cooperative action, and demonstrating our compassion.
German-born, American physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) recognized our connection with each other this way: “Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others…for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.”
3. We are transcendent beings. One of the toughest life lessons I’ve had to learn is that no matter how much I might want to, the world is mostly filled with things I cannot control. And I thought that once I had learned this lesson I would be free from the heartache, despair, and grief that often accompanies circumstances beyond my control. Instead I learned that these deeply experienced and agonizing feelings were part of a natural order, a logical consequence of being human regardless of whether or not I held the tiller.
Yet we always have the ability to transcend the darkest dungeon that these feelings create. American author Napoleon Hill (1883-1970), pointed this out in his best-selling book, Think and Grow Rich, when he said: “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”
Each of us when confronted by adversity faces a fork in the road: one path can lead to a lifetime of trauma, stress, and dysfunction, and the other path can lead to growth, learning, and a purpose-driven life. Which path we choose is primarily influenced not only by our values, character, but also by our attitude.
While we cannot control the significant natural forces of the Earth, and we will often experience some dark days or months as a natural reaction, we have within us the ability to rise, to transcend and grow stronger as a result of our attitude.
Charles Swindoll, an American clergyman, writer and grandfather, and one of creators of personal success philosophy said: “The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company…a church…a home.
“The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude.… I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.”
4. We must never be too late to give or receive a hug. North American media coverage of the events in Japan emphasized the doom and despair of destruction, the death-toll, and radiation leaks. In addition, Western media focused on a particularly North American perspective: the degree of stoicism shown by the Japanese people as a way of coping with the trauma; and the role of government in taking action (or not taking action) to help the people.
Yet my experience with the members of the Japanese Peer Support Association who have visited here often, as well as reports directly from bloggers in Japan portray a different picture. Western media has interpreted a ‘stoic’ posture as as either a lack of or a high degree of control of feelings or emotions. Reporters have assumed that for each Japanese citizen there is a cauldron of anxiety just below the surface that is being held in check by the stoic appearance.
While the Japanese people may naturally experience distress and anxiety, their stoicism is in reality more accurately a reflection of the high value they place on honor. What the Japanese deeply understand—and does not have the same representation in Western culture—is that what people do in public and how they treat their neighbours reflects on each of them as individuals, on their community, and their nation. To lose honor, unlike the loss of a home or possession, is something that is almost impossible to regain. But honor in Japan includes providing aid and comfort to others as evidenced in the accompanying photo which shows two survivors in holding each other.
While Western press coverage has focused on the devastation, bloggers in Japan have been providing a more in-depth description of what is happening on a personal, local level. The following entries detail the peer relationships and the distribution of hugs in one of the areas dramatically impacted by the 9.0 earthquake. The blog excerpts which follow, show how the deeply-held characteristic of honor in Japan lends itself more to helping others and, during disasters, finding ways to be of service to others.
“Things here in Sendai have been rather surreal. But I am very blessed to have wonderful friends who are helping me. We share supplies like water, food and a kerosene heater. We sleep lined up in one room, eat by candlelight, share stories.
“There has been no looting, no pushing in lines. People leave their front door open, as it is safer when an earthquake strikes. People keep saying, ‘Oh, this is how it used to be in the old days when everyone helped one another.’
“Quakes keep coming. Last night they struck about every 15 minutes. Sirens are constant and helicopters pass overhead often. During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes. People sit in their cars, looking at news on their navigation screens, or line up to get drinking water when a source is open. If someone has water running in their home, they put out a sign so people can come to fill up their jugs and buckets.
“I come back to my shack to check on it each day, now to send this e-mail since the electricity is on, and I find food and water left in my entranceway. I have no idea from whom, but it is there. Old men in green hats go from door to door checking to see if everyone is OK. People talk to complete strangers asking if they need help. I see no signs of fear. Resignation, yes, but fear or panic, no.
“Evacuation shelters are all over every city. Food, water, and heat are there, although very limited. Mats and blankets, again in short supply, are also there. People are collecting wood from damaged buildings and making fires for heating and cooking. Volunteers welcome evacuees and help in whatever way they can. Firefighters and policemen carry the old and injured into shelters on their backs. And shelters have designated leaders to head meetings and make decisions.
“People in the shelters are supporting one another. They massage each others’ legs and shoulders, sit in close circles for human contact, read stories to kids, or simply hold hands. They are grateful for whatever goodness comes their way. ‘I feel so fortunate. We are able to eat at least once a day,’ one woman said.
“Today one young able man, who was helping his parents clean up the remains of their home, was called into the reserves. He had no choice, but was not happy about this turn of events. But his mother said, ‘We need him here, of course, but his service to others, to many, is more important than for only us.’
“During the day people go out to search for missing family members. TV crews are there, of course, and often stop people for interviews. Emotional wounds are deep and vast. People’s intense efforts to contain grief is painful to witness. No overt wailing. But tears and silence everywhere.
“‘Shigata ga nai’ is a Japanese expression that roughly translated means, ‘It cannot be helped.’ It also implies a sense of enduring what is happening and of making the best of whatever situation you are in. That concept is an integral part of everyday life here, not only now, but always. This emergency situation is surely one of ‘shigata ga nai’. And everywhere people are saying, ‘We have to soldier on. There is no other way.’” (Excerpts from Anne Thomas’ blog at Ode Magazine.)
Honor is a characteristic not often seen and rarely practiced in North America. It was clearly missing in post-catastrophe reactions during Katrina where the disaster became an opportunity for many people to loot businesses and homes. In addition, when disaster strikes in North America considerable effort is placed on identifying culprits and blaming or criticizing government for what it did or did not do.
Not so in Japan, although Western reporters constantly urged Japanese survivors to make comments about their government’s response. No other country has a disaster recovery infrastructure as sophisticated and organized as Japan’s. Instead of spending time and effort assigning blame, the Japanese and the 11,000 Canadians in Japan are busy helping each other, giving hugs where needed and providing concrete assistance to assure survival.
While the devastation to buildings in parts of Japan is extensive, Rebecca Solnit’s recent book on disasters around the world, concluded that the key factor for both the physical recovery and the healing of the human spirit during troubled times was peer-to-peer interaction. Her analysis of the 1906 earthquake that destroyed most of San Francisco provides a remarkable and little told story about how peer-to-peer support not only helped the city to quickly recover from the fires, explosions, and rubble, but to become an even greater financial and cultural mecca.
The character of a nation such as Japan is strongly peer- and elder-based. And while our hearts are with the people of Japan, we know they have the capacity, the determination, the experience, and the character to re-build in a way that will make them stronger than ever.
When people work together and establish a culture of mutual support—as evidenced by contemporary approaches to peer assistance, mentoring and coaching—we give ourselves the spiritual tools to enable us to survive and flourish a variety of difficult events and circumstances.
I’d like to hear from other Spirit Mentor readers as to what lessons they have been learning from the events in Haiti, Chile, Western China, New Zealand and Japan. Contact me by email at email@example.com
If you’d like help the people of Japan with your heart, brain or bank account, visit this blog entry from the Huffington Post for legitimate and credible opportunities. (Unfortunately, many fake social media entries have been distributed that contain links to scam-charity websites.)
If you’d like to help the New Zealand Red Cross provide assistance for the February 22 earthquake in Christchurch, go to their 2011 Earthquake Appeal.
Bonanno, G.A. (2009). The other side of sadness: What the new science of breavement tells us about life after loss. New York: Basic Books. This book is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.co.uk
Solnit, R. (2009). A paradise built in hell: Extraordinary communities that arise in disasters. New York: Viking Adult (Penguin Group). This book is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.co.uk
Winchester, S. (2005). A crack in the edge of the world: America and the great California earthquake of 1906. New York: HarperCollins. This book is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.co.uk
I’m old enough to remember when the “War on Drugs” was initiated with great fanfare and hope. Parents, educators and politicians believed the battle could be won. All it would take would be dedication, commitment, and adequate funding. Billions of dollars later and littered with burned-out workers, society and its efforts to wipe-out the drug culture pale in comparison to the financial resources of the drug cartels, the number of imprisoned users, and the legitimate services associated with surveillance, investigation and punishment.
Despite our best intentions and best practices, we have failed completely to bring about a drug-free society, a place where our youth can be free from pressure to use drugs, or a place where our urban citizens can safely walk the downtown streets at any time. Drug users constitute a small percentage of our population, yet what they need to do to gain access to the money to purchase drugs, restricts the freedom of most of the people in an urban environment. Prisons, we hope, are places where dangerous criminals can be punished or isolated from harming others, yet our prisons are primarily filled with people whose only crime was the need to find drugs.
More and more innocent, law-abiding people are becoming victims of others in search of the means to purchase or gain drugs. Drug users themselves are frequently victims of violent crimes. No one grows up with the career aspiration of “I want to be a user and live on the street and get ripped off as much as possible.” No drug user says, “I’d rather steal, cheat and betray my friends, than use drugs.” Yet we treat users as if they are making these career and life choices.
There is still one solution that is the most powerful and effective way to eliminate virtually all of the problems associated with drug culture. There is still one essential method that can end the war on drugs. And only Canada is poised and strong enough to put this solution into practice. Legalize and regulate all drugs.
A minority of people believe that legalized drugs will lead to an increase in users. This is unlikely to happen. No one leading a healthy, satisfying, confidence-filled life will suddenly say, “Gee, maybe things would be better if I went down to the clinic and got a dose of heroin.”
There are people who believe that drug use leads to criminal behaviour. Only a minority of people will engage in dangerous and violent acts when their judgment is impaired. And most of these people engage in these acts to get the money to buy more drugs. More people use drugs to calm themselves and reduce their stress levels, not build up their willingness to hurt someone else.
Some people are proponents of the viewpoint that supporting drug users means a lowering of moral standards in the community. Supporting drug users actually gives them a chance to improve their health, be employed, and make positive contributions to their communities. Without the worry of when and where their next dose is coming from, they can increase their attention to safety, quality relationships, and a decent lifestyle. They can increase their freedom to control their involvement with drugs, giving them more options to use at appropriate times and in appropriate places.
There are also those naysayers who argue that we have already legalized two of the most powerful drugs, tobacco and alcohol, and the health and societal benefits are marginal. Sure, bad things can happen to users and innocent people can become victims of users from ab- sorbing second-hand smoke to being killed by a drunk driver. We are still struggling with our options to manage and regulate misuse. But the majority of smokers and drinkers regulate them- selves in a responsible manner: they have places to go; they can be treated with decency and compassion when necessary and feel the full effect of the law when they violate it. Most people in Canada don’t smoke. Most people in Canada do not misuse alcohol. Legalization does not lead to significantly greater use.
Worried parents believe that legalization will lead to an increase of dangerous drug use among children and teenagers. Like other drugs and activities in society, certain acts are only legal for adults. Adding additional drugs to the list will not change this. Establishing an appropriate age or system for legal access to drugs may actually help parents in their discussions with their teens and children. By eliminating the life-long ban on various drugs, society may help young people gain greater respect for the “sense” of the law. Parents who are users may not feel hypocritical about their use and can more clearly and honestly discuss their involve- ment.
Health-conscious individuals are concerned that legalizing currently illegal drugs will impact negatively on health and raise our costs for treatment. By today’s standards it is not unusual to have concerns about virtually everything we take into our bodies. Virtually all popular, currently illegal drugs have in their origin a medicinal, health, or spiritual purpose or have been described today as having potentially valued properties. Legalization allows appropriate experimentation, supervised administration, and informative education. The billions of dollars associated with the war on drugs might be more appropriately directed at finding treatment and prevention methods for all health problems, not just drug users.
The “gateway” argument states that legalizing one substance will result in a yearning for other “harder and more dangerous” illegal drug. Research does show that users of the most highly dangerous drugs started their drug use by using less dangerous drugs. Of course, this scientific finding is made somewhat ludicrous when it is also revealed that the main substance consumed by users and addicts prior to the use of any legal or illegal drug was milk. But the “danger” of the hard drugs comes not from the drug itself, but from the way the drug is currently packaged and marketed in its illegal form.
Advocates for legalizing marijuana, the country’s most widely used illegal drug, have increased significantly in the last few years. This is a good place to start, but most cannabis users are already productive members of society whether they inhale or not. We need to legalize drugs such as cocaine and heroin; drugs that cannot be grown at home; drugs that are more difficult to properly administer and assess their composition. We need to give users access to inexpensive, regulated, self- or expert-administered doses. Clean needles, accurate substance analysis, determination of appropriate times and places will help users become more responsible and reduce dangerous drug-taking or drug-seeking behaviours. Free our police and justice system to target the real terror, crime, abuse, and violence in our society.
I want to see this type of legalization happen in my life time. I don’t use drugs of any kind, and I am definitely not advocating for the use of drugs. My friends are not drug users or adovates for drugs either. But we all want to be able to enjoy our city; we want access to our streets at night; we want to stroll with our children in our parks; and we want to keep our spouses, friends, co-workers, relatives, and family members safe. As a business person and home owner I don’t want to engage in extensive security measures to keep my home and office secure. I want to feel compassionate about individuals who need or seek treatment for addiction, rather than be worried that I’ll be ripped off by extending a helping hand. I want our community to provide drug users with access to safe and decent shelter without being treated as criminals.
How would you like things to be in your community?
(Five and a half years have gone by since I originally wrote this post, and I thought it would be valuable to repost on this blog since it wasn’t available five years ago.)
Ten weeks have gone by since I had heart bypass surgery. I was shocked and stunned to learn that I had to have an operation on my heart. The surgery was a life-changing and life-threatening event, and I’ve started to understand the meaning this event has for me. I’ve learned many important lessons along the way, and I’d like to share my top twelve. Each lesson provided me with an even greater commitment to the work we do as mentors, peer assistants and coaches. I hope that what you read here will not just be a story about what happened to me, but will act as source of inspiration and reflection for what is important in your own work and life.
In January, during my regular exercise workout, I collapsed and lost consciousness while on a treadmill at the recreation centre. When I came to a few seconds later, I thought I was just dehydrated, overdoing it, or unable to catch my breath. Fortunately for me a first-aid technician was there immediately and attended to the scrapes caused by my face plant on the treadmill belt. He also called emergency services. They arrived quickly, placed me on a gurney, and connected me to a heart monitor. I was experiencing a role reversal: typically I’m the helper; however, now I was in the position of relying on others to help me.
The lesson that was highlighted for me was the importance of mutuality and shared responsibility for making our peer assistance, mentoring and coaching relationships work. Not only is this an important way to interact with clients and partners, but we also need to ensure that we have coaches, mentors, and peer assistants in our lives that we can rely on for support.
The emergency personnel asked me questions to determine my level of consciousness and aid in their preliminary diagnosis and treatment, I was trying to convince them that all I needed was to go home. I thought that if I can just get home, I’ll be safe. Faced with severe challenges, I learned we often want to find a safe haven; a place where we can be protected, in control, heard, and supported. That’s what home represented to me. I wonder how often we strive to provide this sense of sanctuary for the people we encounter in our work.
The ambulance crew, despite my attempts to convince them otherwise, concluded that a journey to the hospital emergency room was necessary. What I learned from their insistence was that when someone experiences a sudden traumatic event, denial may play a large role and result in attempts to reject or minimize the need for appropriate assistance. Skilled listening, powerful questions, and persistence are probably the best way to overcome such denial.
I was fortunate that some of the best coronary care specialists and heart surgeons in Canada worked at the hospital that was just a few blocks from both the recreation center and my home. My friends often tease me that I don’t like to leave my postal (zip) code area, and they’re right. I have virtually all the services I need for business and personal use within walking distance. The ride in the ambulance from the recreation center to the hospital only took a few minutes. I was on the gurney in the ambulance lying flat and facing backwards. I started to feel motion sickness and was getting dizzy from the ride. The emergency attendant riding with me said my experience of motion sickness was pretty common. What I learned from this brief encounter was that having an expert recognize and normalize a distressing experience can provide considerable relief.
I’ve never spent any time in a hospital except to visit people I knew who were ill, or when I was a clinical psychology intern in a hospital for war veterans. Being wheeled in as a patient was similar to what I’ve seen on TV, where from the patient’s perspective all you can see is the ceiling lights going by. After examination by an emergency room cardiologist, I was admitted to the hospital for observation and tests. I still wasn’t convinced this was necessary, and wanted to get dressed and walk home.
Maybe I should explain. I never had any symptoms of heart disease; I was physically very fit, exercised regularly, and pretty much had a healthy diet. I couldn’t believe that my recreation center accident was anything but a freak occurrence. I can recall very little of what happened during the next few days in the hospital. What I learned from this memory lapse was that anxiety, fear, and resistance severely reduce attention, focus, and understanding. Even though I appeared to have a calm exterior, my inner turmoil created a protective veil or shield, and blocked the normal sharpness of my cognitive ability. My wife, Sarah, was later able to fill me in on what transpired during this time, and she told me that my exterior calmness helped her to remain calm. I think that I was more likely stunned than calm.
In our roles as coaches, mentors and peer assistants it is important to be able to recognize when a client or partner may be overwhelmed or experiencing inner turmoil that is masked by external behaviour. Sometimes called “bracing against the pain” this conflict between an inner and outer life can result in cognitive difficulties and physiological problems. By having an opportunity to reflect on the turmoil, our clients and partners are more likely to recover quickly, and more actively participate in their own healing.
Some of the diagnostic tests acted as a reality check and confirmed that not only did I have coronary artery disease, but that the only option for me was bypass surgery. The scientist part of me was fascinated to watch the angiogram probe of my heart arteries on the TV-monitor. Although the procedure to explore my arteries was invasive, there was no pain. The cardiologist took the time to explain the test to me, what it would show, and what decisions had to be made as a result. But his explanation was more than just a clinical review. His communication demonstrated compassion, warmth, expertise, and concern that generated immediate rapport and trust.
I learned two things from this: that developing trust is essential when it comes to making important life decisions; and that having a preview of what was going to happen enabled me to feel more connected to the process. This not only reinforced for me the importance of trust and compassion in our coach, mentor and peer assistance relationships, but also the importance of giving the people we work with a better idea of how we intend to work with them.
I was released from the hospital to spend a few days at home before my scheduled surgery. My cardiologist made me promise to return for the surgery, which I thought was an unusual request. I had no intention of fleeing the country or not going ahead with the procedure. I guess that when some patients get home, the security of their own place creates an increase in denial.
While the cardiologist was well-intentioned, he didn’t tap into my deeper motivation and my commitment to have the surgery. How often do we as coaches, mentors, and peer assistants participate in the action phase of our interactions while missing what is truly propelling another person to take (or resist) such action?The cardiologist reinforced the importance of my having the surgery by saying that I wouldn’t be permitted to drive a car until he gave approval some time after the surgery. I laughed when he used this prohibition as a “carrot” to get me to come back. He asked why I was chuckling. I told him I didn’t like to drive anyway, and to have a reason not to was a great relief.
Assessing current reality and setting goals
After a few days at home I returned to the hospital to begin the “pre-op” phase of my surgery. I was given a tour of the surgery and recovery areas, met the surgeon and the anesthesiologist, both of whom explained with compassion what I could expect. They described the procedures, the high degree of success of the operation, the likelihood that my heart would work even better afterwards, and that I would be able to resume all my normal activities a few weeks later. These were all goals that were at the highest priority on my list.
My time at home prior to this experience gave me considerable opportunity to review and reflect upon the balance sheet of my life. I thought about what I wanted to have happen. I became extremely calm and felt a serenity that surprised me. I realized that I was not afraid to die. I wanted the surgery to be successful, and I wanted to continue to enjoy the love of my wife, family and friends. I felt I was in the hands of the best that was available to us on this earth. If I didn’t survive, I felt accepting of it because up to this very day I thought I had lived my life with passion, purpose, and meaning. While I may have had some regrets about things I had done (or not done) in the past, I had no present baggage, uncertainties, or unresolved connections. The love and intimacy I have with my wife and family had never been stronger. My life felt complete. Mostly what I felt was gratitude and appreciation.
Following surgery I was connected to a number of machines, tubes and drugs. I had my own cardiac care nurse. All of these were crucial for my survival and recovery. After a few days I was allowed to go home (without the equipment but with a number of prescription drugs the names of which I couldn’t pronounce). Before I was released from the hospital I had to demonstrate to the cardiac rehabilitation physiotherapist my ability to walk around, tie my shoes and dress myself. I even had to show that I could walk up and down two flights of stairs. When the physiotherapist accompanied me on the stair climb, she congratulated me on the success and let me know that going up and down two flights was equivalent to the energy needed to have sex. I said to her, “I think I’d rather climb the stairs.”
For me the lesson here was the importance of humor. Throughout this most serious of all surgeries, I continued to find humorous elements. One of the cardiac care nurses showed my wife and me a video tape made by a previous cardiac patient who had gone through the same procedure. Near the end of the tape, it showed the former patient playing golf. I turned to my wife and said, “Oh, no, honey; I don’t have to learn to play golf when this is over, do I?”
On another occasion when I was in recovery and was still feeling the impact of the tubes that had been placed in my throat during surgery, I was having a hard time getting my vocal chords to work and pretty much had to whisper. A nurse, hoping to aid in my recovery, said to me: “You’ll have to try to speak louder.” I replied in a whisper, “What’s the matter; are you afraid of intimacy?”
I mention these three examples because the first two represent humor that relieved a possible tension- or anxiety-producing situation, while the third example, although funny to me, could have easily been interpreted by the nurse to be a rebuke or rejection of her interest in helping me. Humor is an important element of our work, but it requires attention to making sure it adds to rather than detracts from what we hope will happen.
While the hospital staff, including the nurses, doctors, food services personnel, and lab technicians all contributed to my recovery from surgery, it wasn’t until I returned home that my healing really began. My wife Sarah created an email network to keep my friends and family informed about my progress, and they responded with messages of great care and concern. The messages I read showed me a level of caring, compassion and love I didn’t know existed. Some of the messages brought me to tears; some of the messages were inspiring; and some of the messages revealed a depth of relationship that most people can only dream about.
What I learned during this healing period was not that coaches, mentors and peer assistants must provide this kind of care to others, but that we must assist each person we work with to develop and access a social network of support that includes people who love and care for them. Without such a social network of intimacy, friendship and compassion available to those we work with, our efforts as coaches, mentors and peer assistants will have only short-term impact. For those in our field that are strongly results-driven, we must attend to the social context within which those results are taking place.
One of the elements that peer assistants, mentors and coaches have in common, and that distinguishes these roles from other types of helping, is a sense of partnership. We work to accompany the people we work with on their journey. We often bear witness to what the other person is experiencing. As trusted partners we often provide insights, observations, and feedback. During a period of life transition, such a trusted witness can attend to events, activities, or circumstances that are often inaccessible to us as we journey along the transition path.
For a period of time after my surgery, I was in a daze from the procedure and the post-operative medications. While I appeared lucid and could carry on conversation, my wife, who stayed close to my side daily, was later able to provide me with details about my presence and interaction with others that seemed to disappear from memory. Whether it was a type of trauma amnesia, or the impact of the medications or fear, her recall from notes, observations, witnessing my interactions, and providing me with feedback, proved to be a valuable element of my healing. Friends who visited me during my hospital stay as well as nurses and physicians also were able to fill in my memory gaps. I thought they were making these things up, until I recognized the compassion they demonstrated to describe what I had been going through.
Another element that is common to most mentoring, coaching and peer assistance is practitioner involvement in challenging the people with whom he or she works. Understanding and accepting limits or boundaries is important, but we often don’t realize how much more capability resides within us. When I was snoozing or feeling cozy in my hospital bed, the physiotherapist would come into my room and announce that it was time to get up to go for a walk. I didn’t think I could and I didn’t wanna! But as an expert in what I was going through and the particular stage of my recovery I had achieved, the physiotherapist knew I had much more potential and that my “unwillingness” to get out of bed was expected.
How do we know the challenge will help someone achieve their best or bring them to the farthest limit of their capability? Certainly deep listening to and understanding of how a person perceives their current reality is one of the keys. Another key is having enough experience and self-knowledge to anticipate or empathize with the other person’s situation. My friend Bruce Elkin, a coach and Peer Resources Network member, was the first person to help me learn about the exhilaration that comes from moving something from your “can’t do” area to your “can do” area.
Being the cheerleader and paying close attention to how the other person is reacting to the challenge, enabled the physiotherapist to get me out of bed and to shuffle down the hall. Most importantly, the physiotherapist provided a safety net for my fear of pushing beyond my limits. She walked beside me offering support, encouragement and reassurance. Enabling our clients and partners to experience the safety net prior to creating the challenge is essential for risk-taking and growth beyond their limits.
Adversity is often part of a life transition. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to what happens. At the same time, a life transition provides an opportunity to connect to a deeper level of life purpose. For some, this deeper connection may not happen without people around them who are willing to ask questions that go beyond the ritual, “How are you feeling today?”
Spirituality has played a significant role in my life, particularly as I grow older. Consequently, I think about life more in terms of purpose and meaning, than I do in terms of accomplishments or results. While I have a tendency to attend to spiritual matters, I found it was extremely valuable to have people around me who asked questions like, “What does this experience mean to you?” “What was the best part of your day today?” “How are you feeling about what’s happened to you?” At times these questions brought me to exceptional emotional depth; tears were not unusual, and new insights as well as affirmations of my world view were common. I ruminated about my vulnerability, my perception of myself as a catalyst to help others connect with their own deepest levels, the unpredictability of the future and the importance of now, what it meant to lose my physical strength and my previous way of life, and to be so completely dependent on others.
These reflections, and the meaning-making discussions that were typically prompted by the people around me, became a major factor in my healing. I’m not finished yet in understanding the meaning this event has for me, and I’m glad to be surrounded by people who are dedicated to helping me with the journey. I am still identifying aspects of this experience that bring me to an even deeper understanding of my purpose in life. One thing that really struck me as humorous with regard to life purpose was that for some time I’ve lived my life in accordance with the universal principles associated with the Law of Attraction. That’s not the funny part. What gave me a chuckle was that while I was in the hospital I found out that my blood type was B-positive.
I hope what I’ve had to say in this article will act as a catalyst for reflecting on increased attention to these 12 elements in our mentoring, coaching and peer assistance work. In these roles we may often be in a key position to help others maximize their learning from life experience and not succumb to adversity and challenge. I also hope that this article will act as a prompt for you to have a check-up.
As my recovery improves every week, I am confident in the doctor’s predictions for a fully active, healthy and long life ahead. And, who knew; dark chocolate is loaded with heart-healthy antioxidants.I am grateful to all those who helped me and sent wishes of support. Although this is the third issue of the Peer Bulletin I’ve sent out after my cardiovascular disease diagnosis and operation, it is the first time I’ve been able to write about it. By sharing what I have learned (and am still learning) in the face of adversity and challenge, I hope others will be encouraged to see their own life challenges as opportunities for deeper understanding of their life purpose. (Editor’s Note: Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in North America. Recent developments in research, diagnosis, and treatment make it the most successfully treatable and preventable of all causes of mortality.)
Agatston, A. (2006). The South Beach heart program: The 4-step plan that can save your life. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Books. (Available from Amazon.com)
Cooper, K.H. (2005). Regaining the power of youth at any age: Startling new evidence from the doctor who brought us aerobics, controlling cholesterol and the antioxidant revolution. Nashville, Tennessee: Nelson Books. (Available from Amazon.com)
Cornwall, C. (February, 2007). Doing your heart good: The latest medical news. Reader’s Digest. 170, 1018, 90-98. Crowley, C. and Lodge, H.S. (2004). Younger next year: A guide to living like 50 until you’re 80 and beyond. New York, New York: Workman Publishing Company.(Available from Amazon.com)
Elkin, B. (2006). Emotional mastery: Change your mood and create success that matters–with whatever life gives you. Victoria, British Columbia: Bruce Elkin E-Book. (Available from www.bruceelkin.com)
Harrington, P. (Producer), Byrne, R. (Executive Producer), & Heriot, D. (Director). (2006). The Secret. [DVD]. (Available from http://shop.thesecret.tv/Shops/DVD_Offer.php)
Levine, P.A. (2005). Healing trauma: A pioneering program for restoring the wisdom of your body. Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True. (Available from Amazon.com)
Losier, M. (2004). Law of attraction: The science of attracting more of what you want and less of what you don’t want. Victoria, British Columbia: Michael J. Losier. (Available from Amazon.com)
Scaer, R.C. (2001). The body bears the burden: Trauma, dissociation and disease. Binghampton, New York: Haworth Press. (Available from Amazon.com)
Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, was for 72 years the King of France.
His reign became the longest in European history. During his reign France became the most influential cultural power in Europe, and his absolute rule brought under his control all the country’s wealth, aristocracy and clergy. At the same time, however, he encouraged slavery, let his people starve, bankrupted his treasury on showy displays and wars, and his aggressive policies alienated and isolated France from its traditional allies.
He knew that at some point, all things being equal, his grandson—who would eventually become Philip V (1683-1746)—would succeed him.
For this reason, in 1698 he called to the Palace at Versailles a priest named François Fénelon (1651-1715) to become the Royal Tutor for his eventual successor, who had the title Duke of Anjou. A close relationship developed between the Royal Tutor and the young Duke, and it was evident that Fénelon was having a significant impact of the Duke’s learning and behaviour.
Fénelon, a Roman Catholic priest, who was also a poet and writer, did not approve of Louis’ style of governance.
Rather than denounce the King’s policies outright, he decided to engage in a more subversive action and express reservations in an innocuous package.
Since the typical materials used to teach young people of the day seemed ineffective, Fénelon decided to update the curriculum with his own versions. He recognized from his days in the pulpit, that stories were a powerful way to engage an audience.
Searching around, he chose a favourite of the day—the story of Odysseus. Fénelon altered and highlighted the original story by Homer and called the new work Les Aventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus Son of Ulysses).
This new version pointed out the difference between how to run an empire the right and wrong way, and included an admonition to keep a workforce strong by not letting the workers starve. The newly revised version also focused on the folly of spending all one’s energies and money on wars based on vanity.
The philosophy that he liberally sprinkled throughout this work was the importance of using restraint and wisdom in exercising power. Odysseus, through Fénelon’s voice, even proposed the then radical notion of educating girls.
Fénelon succeeded with his teachings for a time; but then the King discovered what the Archbishop had been doing.
Despite what many Royal Court observers had to say about the great improvements shown in the behavior of the spoiled and at times violent Duke of Anjou as a result of Fénelon’s tutoring, King Louis didn’t approve of the direction his grandson’s education had taken. He most certainly didn’t take well to the criticism of his policies and practices. The King banished his grandson’s Royal Tutor and mentor to the remotest part of the kingdom, and destroyed the curriculum materials.
However, one copy of Fénelon’s book was saved and published. It became the most widely published book of the decade, and the ideas in it became the foundation for much of today’s thinking about the use of power; and, ironically, certainly hastened the French Revolution.
Archbishop Fénelon, through his presence as a mentor and through the clever way he enabled the storied character to act as a mentor, has left us a Royal legacy that is often considered the origin of the term mentor. (For additional stories on how the use of the term mentor may have been originated, visit here.
Do not follow the bad example which I have set you; I have often undertaken war too lightly and have sustained it for vanity. Do not imitate me, but be a peaceful prince, and may you apply yourself principally to the alleviation of the burdens of your subjects.
~ King Louis XIV on his deathbed to his successor son, Louis XV ~
From François Bluche (translated by Mark Greengrass) (1990). Louis XIV. Available from Amazon.com
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