A Mentor From Hell

Dante and Virgil with Brunetto Latini. Gustave Doré

Dante and Virgil with Brunetto Latini. Gustave Doré

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a mentor is “an experienced and trusted person who gives another person advice and help over a period of time.” We turn to mentors to get some sense of what lies ahead and how to handle it. Often a mentor is someone we hope to be like in the future. I have been a mentor to a number of college students and younger psychologists. I am going to be trained as a mentor for ex-prisoners. I’m looking for a retirement mentor to help me with the transition out of the workforce. We tend to think of mentorship as always being a good thing. Does everyone who acts as a mentor actually offer something valuable, though? Would we sometimes be better off rejecting the advice of someone who speaks with the voice of experience?

These questions came to mind while reading Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life, his account of the wisdom he gleaned from reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. As Dante is descending down through the levels of hell, he is surprised to encounter Brunetto Latini, a great Italian statesman and man of letters whom Dante had admired when Brunetto was alive. Brunetto speaks warmly to Dante, offering him fatherly advice. In particular, he advises Dante to follow his star, saying he will achieve success if he does so. Brunetto is essentially advising Dante to pursue his self-interest. The problem is that Brunetto is telling Dante to do as he had done when he was alive, and following that course had put him in hell. Dreher comments:

“Brunetto is a vain man, a writer and public intellectual who thought the way to pursue immortality was to serve his own cause in his work–and a spiritually blind teacher who, one suspects, sees Dante’s progress as an artist chiefly as a means to hitch himself to a rising star. For the damned, it is always about themselves.”

Dreher contrasts the path that Dante is learning with the one that Brunetto had taken during his life:

“Dante is beginning to see the world through spiritually renewed eyes, but Brunetto, in the eternal desert of hell, will always view things through the eyes of worldly glory. Brunetto thinks he sees clearly, but he is not the sort of man to question his own perception or the story that taught him what to look for in life.”

What kind of mentor should I try to be? Warmth, encouragement, and the gift of my time are all important, but, if the example of Brunetto is to be believed, they aren’t enough. In addition, I need to think in terms of what is best for the person, not just assume as did Brunetto that they should follow the course I took. It’s also essential that I have enough wisdom to point the way not to the shiny baubles of fame or wealth but instead to what has enduring value. Dreher suggests:

“How much happier would young people be if they began their careers thinking not of the fame, fortune, and glory they will receive from professional accomplishment but rather the good they can do for others.”

According to the Apostle Paul, nothing lasts forever except faith, hope, and love. I would like nothing more but to foster these qualities in those I have the privilege of mentoring.

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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