Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Mentor's Death

I still remember when I learned he had passed away.

He was one of my earliest professional heroes, someone I admired, looked up to, called on for advice, all the usual mentorship stuff we throw around too cheaply most of the time. This guy was the real deal to me. He took a chance on me, gave me my first shot in leadership, and I took very personally the goal of never letting him down.

We worked hard together, laughed a lot, and my daily interactions with him were an ongoing tutorial in leadership, both effective and, sometimes, not so much. His health was terrible, and he didn't do much to improve it. When he retired, I didn't hold out much hope that he would live much longer at all. Literally. I thought it was likely he would be dead within a few years.

When I moved away a couple years later, I honestly feared he would die, and I would not hear about it in time to attend his funeral. I don't know if this is sickeningly morbid, but that's what I thought would happen, and this scenario just broke my heart.

So, before I moved, I took the step of asking a friend to keep me posted about him. She would certainly know if and when anything happened, and I rested easier knowing my feared scenario would not come to pass.

Well, you may have guessed by now:  It happened after all, exactly as I had envisioned it.

Turns out, my early-career hero lived another ten years after he and I parted ways, and experienced improved health during much of that time. I learned this when I happened to catch up with the friend who was supposed to tell me when he died. She did tell me...that he had died about a year before.

My surprise and sadness were, in the moment, matched by frustration with my friend, though I did not tell her so. What purpose would it serve? She told me the story of my mentor's death, and we reflected together on how much he had meant to us. My friend did acknowledge how unfortunate it was that I had never been informed of what happened, and just when I thought she was about to apologize for forgetting me, she dropped some humbling perspective:

"I'm surprised you didn't know. He was so active on Facebook, I assumed you were keeping up with him."



I myself had been active on Facebook for five years at that point, and couldn't believe my mentor had never friended me in all that time, if he was on Facebook too. I really thought I was important to him, a protege he was proud of, a legacy beyond himself, an extension of his values and priorities, etc, etc, etc. I actually resented my dead mentor for a bit. How could he have ignored me all those years, when it would have taken nothing but a few keystrokes to find my open Facebook page? I should have been among the first people he looked up when he opened his account!

Of course, after awhile, the obvious and uncomfortable fact settled into my mind:

"You didn't look him up, either, you know..."

Pride, pride, pride.

This man, who lived a full life of family, faith, and professional success, many of whose years included the burden of serious illness, who spent many years working with many different people, and only two of those years working with me, should have prioritized an ongoing, personal connection with me, during the last ten years of his life. And all that, when I hadn't thought to look him up myself.

That thought was the foundation for the hurt and resentment I felt.

When you spell it out like that, I was not nearly as slighted as I first felt I was. In fact, the opposite. I had felt I deserved the glow of my mentor's continued attention and praise, without the investment of my own attention and thought toward him. I thought I should have meant a great deal to him, when I had not made sure he knew how much he meant to me.

But I hope he knew. I have to believe he did know.

Isn't it a mystery how we pass through the lives of people, and they through ours?

And, isn't it interesting to consider the expectations we so often bring to the table, expectations of what others are supposed to do for us, emotional needs we want others to fill, but not always what we could do for them?

Could this be different?

Could we instead focus on giving freely to others, investing gladly in the lives of those souls who are with us for a season, regardless of what they ever give back?

Could that outlook possibly be the key to feeling the glow I thought should have come from my mentor?

RIP, Mr. Shelton.

I loved you, and I hope I somehow showed you how grateful I am for all you invested in me.

No comments: