This paper explores the possibilities of creating opportunities for those who have been involved in interfaith dialogue in its many and varied manifestations, to pass on what they have learnt, and are learning, to a younger generation. In other words: to examine mentoring and the role and character of the mentor.
What is Mentoring?
Mentoring is well established in the business world – particularly in the USA. But not at all in dialogue, conflict transformation and peace-building – areas I am learning something about during thirteen years in Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia. Books are written, and training courses set up to develop skills in facilitating mediation. For example; there are workshops, seminars and round tables. But these are not mentoring.
Mentoring is different. A mentor is not a teacher, counsellor or trainer. A mentor is not an omniscient advisor. EM Forster, the British novelist, said: ‘Spoon feeding, in the long run, teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon’. A mentor does not give advice, but is part of a trusted relationship, where there is give and take, a flow between the mentor and individual or group.
The mentor has been ‘there’. He or she has done it and bears the scars to prove it. But the mentor does not rest on his or her experience. The mentor is also a life long learner, but the action is always the responsibility of the person or persons the mentor is working with – often referred to as the mentee. In this relationship, listening is as important as speaking. A good listener provides a sounding board, and sometimes emotional support. The power of the question should not be underestimated: ‘What is it you want to do? What are you doing well? What help do you need? What are you not doing? What is preventing you from a particular course of action? As a result of our conversations, what will you do differently tomorrow? How can I help, and where do you need help? This is reflective learning; the question invites close attention to what is going on in a persons’ life or work. Advice is cheap. Mentoring is worth its weight in gold.
But there is more to becoming a mentor.
One of the advantages in growing older is that it is a time of growth – provided the body and mind are healthy. An older person does not have to prove anything, or justify his or her existence, It is a period as Rowan Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, describes as ‘time to make your soul’, in other words, to discover who you are. In the West, this understanding of the elderly is rare, where the elderly are regarded as disposable. The reasons given are that they no longer contribute to a society, in which the price of everything is known, but not how much everything and everybody is worth. An elderly person has potentially an inner freedom, and a generous spirit, which is essential for those who are, or could be mentors.
There is even more to mentoring than this. Much of what I have said so far is, I hope, recognisable and familiar.
Now I need to take a step back, to consider mentoring in a broader landscape.
For the sake of brevity, I will be as succinct as I can in what follows. Each of the points I will be making needs to be expanded but I hope the summary is helpful.
Over the years in all sorts of training situations, in which I have taken part or organized, I have noticed a blind spot. A person who has a responsible role as a chief executive, or as a religious leader, can acquire new skills which might improve what he does: their performance, as it is often described. The skills can improve how the work is done: the process.
But when we ask where our actions come from, we find it difficult to answer that question. This is the blind spot. The blind spot conceals the source from which we operate, when we do what we do. The source is the quality of attention we use to relate to a particular situation. It is the sort of attention that the artist gives in the process of creating. So every team or organisation, which tries to work together, should find ways to tap into this deeper source, for the purpose of recreating the world again, and then create the place that helps others to do so as well.
The mentor needs to acquire that wisdom which enables the blind spot to disappear, then his or her presence will encourage and enrich immeasurably.
I hope those of us who are Jewish, Muslim or Christian, will recognise the source of our creativity is the work of God,. Yet, so often, religious leaders find it difficult to tap into that inner source.
Over the years in the Balkans, I have met, and got to know, many religious leaders, some of them well. One thing I have noticed is how difficult it is for them to move beyond that blind spot Their preoccupations are, rightly, with issues of justice: so the Catholic bishops of Bosnia, day in day out, are critical of the international community for not making it possible for Catholics to return to their homes. Orthodox bishops criticise the international community for hindering the building of churches. Imams demand compensation for loss of property. Rarely in those conversations has there been any chance to try and create those opportunities, where religious leaders could recover and revisit their faiths together: that capacity to create a world anew together with insights and experiences from their different constituencies This has to be the basis or interfaith dialogue for the future, when the blind spot will have disappeared.
I turned to the Balkans for a moment to illustrate the importance of recognising that blind spot, and the necessity to return to that source of creativity, because this is a key quality of the mentor’s make up. It is the essence of the work of mentoring. So a question arises: how does a person, training to be a mentor, attend to all the difficult questions around the ‘blind spot’? What does he or she need to know, to recognise and remove that blindness?
From this follows four priorities for mentoring:
1. Firstly, mentor, and leaders of all sorts, cannot operate on the basis of existing experiences. The mentor does not rest on his past successes. He or she has to learn from an emerging future. It might be argued that learning from the emerging future is a strange way to proceed, even wrong: since, all we have is the past to guide us. But that is not so. The future is here and now. There are emerging possibilities for the future. The mentor needs to be wise enough to recognise how the future beckons, not least because the future is in the hands of the younger generation, and in even the bleakest and most violent situations there can be hints, glimmers of new life being possible. The mentor has to recognise these new possibilities and, however fragile, be a passionate encourager. Eleanor Roosevelt said: ‘the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.’ What does the mentor need to learn, to recognise the positive ways in which the future is beckoning?
2. Secondly, we are living on a threshold facing a time of uncertainty and confusion. The forced movement of peoples, and war and conflicts being apparently impossible to resolve is now commonplace. The mentor will summon all his or her experience and wisdom to help, where invited, to help people in conflict let go of old realities and then embrace new ones. The mentor will need to assist in helping to let go of the old order, allowing for the new to emerge.
Letting go is not as easy as it sounds. During the Soul of Europe’s work in the Republika Srspka, we were asked to bring together Serbs and the survivors of the killing camp at the iron-ore mine at Omarska .The survivors were demanding a memorial for those murdered there, and throughout the region. Our job was to bring together all the parties to agree on a memorial. Among many, mostly Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims but also a few Bosnian Catholics, there was a reluctance to speak about what happened at the killing camp, and in the nearby town of Prijedor, during the Bosnian war. We must forget what happened, we were told by the authorities, including the mayor, and ‘move on’. But unless stories are told, unless what happened there is brought into the sunlight, there will be, at some point in the future, a repeat of those events. (As it happens, research has shown, young people at school are inheriting their grandfathers’ and fathers’ attitudes.)
There is more to say. When there is a handshake between former enemies, when young Bosnian Serbs refuse to ignore what happened at Omarska and are determined to find the truth of what their parents were involved in, when after many months of carefully prepared conversations, the survivors of Omarska invited Serbs to visit the place in the mine where Bosnian Muslims were interrogated, murdered and their bodies thrown into trucks to be disposed of, when such a minor gesture as a handshake can happen, then a vision of that new world can emerge out of the ruins of the old, despite the cynicism of international officials, and the corruption of local politicians, that undermines the trust between former enemies, built up painstakingly over many months. It takes time, perseverance and courage. So how does the mentor understand this threshold? What does he or she need to know about how to handle these complex situations? The Soul of Europe gained from the wisdom of mentors, such as Dr Paul Lederach. But there are far too few in the world today.
3. The mentor needs to be aware that there are other ways of knowing, besides what can be measured, other than by the culture of ‘targets’, as represented by the market economy, which regulates our existence, especially in the West. Another way of knowing lies in the imagination. The imagination is the capacity in all of us to bring to birth something new, beautiful and good out of the mess we find ourselves in. It is always a moral imagination, as described in his book of that name, by Dr Paul Lederach, my mentor. This is not fantasy or day dreaming, but an imagination which honours the stranger, and the dispossessed, particularly in the work of peace-making the face of the enemy..
The mentor needs to recognise that primacy of the imagination which directly challenges the current market-based notion of what a human being is. The consultant or business mentor works within a narrow framework. His or her task is to ensure the high profitability of their company, and whatever else it may aspire to, in terms of, say, its corporate responsibility. A person in these settings is defined by what he or she produces. Work is a measurable quantity, with concrete results: a material.
But when the imagination is called on, through the arts or religion at its best, it breaks these materialistic perceptions of reality and opens onto other and more hopeful dimensions. We are capable of acts of goodness and heroism, as well as of a capacity to muck everything up. This mix of the noble and the wicked leaves the one-dimensional understanding of humanity, as a cog, a dot, a number, a client, a patient, far behind. Would-be mentors need to understand the power of the creativity in each of us, and to learn to harness it for their lives and mentoring. Each will do this in their own way. For example, I am a musician, and an organist, and I make a presentation about performing the music of Bach and its relationship to my work in peace-building. For me, Bach’s music is uniquely saturated with intimations and forms of hope.
4. And lastly the mentor recognises the need for reflexion – for thinking about, and mulling over, the experiences that those who he or she is working with choose to speak about. This takes time and no mentor should be tempted to hurry on to the next thing. This is difficult, because funders, in particular, want to be assured that what they are supporting will ‘make a difference’ quickly and noticeably. But move on too quickly, and nothing will change. The mentor has to recognise this, and recognise too that dialogue, when it gets beyond generalities, of any sort, brings risk.
There is an uncertainty about dialogue and peace-building. Many of our friends in Bosnia found it difficult to take steps towards a more hopeful future, and they do not see religious leaders helping them to find that courage. We speak a lot about hope. We are in some ways prisoners of hope, and if there is anything more frightening, more risky than terror, it is hope.
On February 7th this year, in Tuzla, Zenica and Sarajevo, there were violent protests. Students, activists, and workers had had enough of corruption in politics and business. In Bosnia, 57% of young people are unemployed. Many want to leave and find a normal better life somewhere else. There has been no positive response from the international community, which is tired of Bosnia. So the Soul of Europe hopes to assemble a coalition of NGOs to arrange a national dialogue about the future of Bosnia. The response is mixed: some NGO’s are fearful of the potential publicity, which could endanger their work, others don’t want to be seen as political, etc. This is what I mean by peace-building being a risky process – and even something of a mystery. A mentor has to recognise these risks and problems, in this and similar situations. What does the mentor need to learn, to recognise such uncertainty, and the possibility of failure?
The task of the mentor in the context of dialogue, conflict transformation and interfaith activities certainly has potential, but how in what precise ways should mentoring be developed?
There needs to be established a global network of mentors, of all religions and none. There should be a virtual College of Mentors, where it will be possible to reflect on their experience and discover how they can develop and improve their work in the light of the observations about mentoring I have just described. Above all, there should be opportunities for the training of mentors..
We need to learn how to recognise the intimations of hope, as the future beckons.
We need to understand the nature of the threshold of uncertainty which threatens to be overwhelming.
We need to appreciate the primacy of the imagination, and how our religious traditions, at their best, reflect this quality.
We need to strengthen our own creativity, in whatever way is right for us.
We need to be aware of the risk and mystery of any movement towards peace and reconciliation.
We need to extinguish that blind spot.
We need to encourage, warn, and be prepared to go the extra mile for those who begin to see us as mentors.
The Soul of Europe is practising, and constantly learning the art of mentoring. We are mentors to the 12 Cities Project which is in the process of establishing a movement of young people, dedicated to undermining Islamophobia in Europe. Supported, as we have been, by DICID, this is a new departure for us, and, to speak personally as a person has spent much of his life initiating and running projects, my role, and the role of my colleagues, is changing. We are learning what it means to be mentors, and discovering how intergenerational activities can be useful. These are early days.
There may well be those in their twenties or younger who want to contact potential mentors, and much work needs to be done to see how mentor and those who might work with them, can be introduced to each other. But first, the mentors need to have opportunities to meet each other: to find out what training is needed, and to understand what it means to be a mentor, along the lines I have been describing. If anyone is interested in what I have said, please be in touch with me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.soulofeurope.org . If there is sufficient interest to take this further, we can arrange a meeting, Thank you for your attention.
10th March 2014
The Soul of Europe