To Teach, To show, To Help

My turn to be a mentor, for a day.

Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

Something I was reading reminded me of a time I spent a winter as an assistant manager at a Howard Johnson restaurant. This was around 1972. The restaurant was part of a hugely popular family restaurant chain.

The article I was reading last night talked about mentors, teachers and that it isn’t always ‘incoming’, the teaching that is. That perhaps just as often it is you, me, who takes his or her turn at being the teacher. Teacher may be too ambitious for this story. Perhaps, more accurately, would be to say that evening at the restaurant, I was placed in a position where I could show a young man something about growing up.

Perhaps I filled the role, ever so temporarily, of being this young mans, Steve's, big brother.

This just floated into my memory.

Steve was a young man we hired at Howard Johnson to clean. A janitor of sorts. Anyway, his life’s desire was to devote his life to the catholic life, to eventually become a preacher. A young man, perhaps 18, and that night we entered into conversation about his future plans. He wanted to become a monk, catholic influence, and follow the steps laid out by Jesus and the Catholic Church.

I need to make clear I respect all forms of faith. Faith appears to be a human thing. We’ve been given the ability to reason, to question. It fits within the confines of fellow humans to help and guide one another through life despite our mistakes. There will be many, always have been, always will be.

My desire to help Steve was due to the single yet very clearly stated fact that his life was pure hell thanks to his father. Add to this was that Steve said he prayed and prayed, upon his knees, that if God helped him fix things with his dad that he’d devote his life to god. That if god solved the chronic struggles with his old man he’d dedicate his life to a path in the church.

His mother was Catholic. This was Steves only exposure to religion at the time, so he focused on the Catholic faith.

It was due to this obviously, unsolved issue that threatened to drag the young man into potentially years, if not a life time of misdirected dedication. Yes, I base this on the belief getting on my knees and asking god to fix an issue I’m having that then I’ll pay him back by giving my life over to him.

I felt this way back then, I feel this way now. Simple: what sort of god have we if we have to payback the godhead for helping us out of a jamb.

As parents we get a taste of reality in similar situations. We promise our parents to study our guts out if we agree to their demand that we eat our vegetables. Rarely, if ever, are such promises fulfilled. Do our parents hate us then? Hell no! Not if they’re worth a damn.

It was during our talk that evening in the slow-moving restaurant we entered into the conversation that asked why? Why give your life to such a role? He presented himself as being fully and irrevocably decided to enter the priesthood. Utterly taken by the concept of serving the catholic doctrine, all its beliefs, etc., etc. What may have turned it into a gentle and rambling debate was his determined insistence that it was ‘his way or the highway.

He seemed so sure of himself. So certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that his chosen path as a monk, one who would serve god and his clearly set out teachings. Basically, everything the Catholic Church pushed, including the ‘fact’ that the church was the only way. The only way in the sense that it was the Catholic Church, or it was ‘you are going to hell.’ He said he had chosen the path so he could have a hand in saving fellow human souls from hell and brimstone.

He seemed like a pretty nice kid. Steve. Sort of a big boy. Looked like he could’ve played football. There was something soft and easygoing about his demeanor. I knew he’d taken some guff from some of his fellow workers. They had brought it to my attention as assistant manager in the restaurant that some were growing tired of the young man’s proselytizing. Perhaps, in part, it was this which prompted the conversation between us.

The other part is I remember feeling something for Steve. He reminded me of myself somehow at that age. Perhaps I sensed he was lost. As a youth, I’d spent so much time lost.

During that time of my life at the restaurant was when I was approaching thirty or had just passed that milestone. A time when I was on a very secure stretch of daily meditation. Hindu based meditation. My meditation was modeled very similar to the Maharishi format, what was called TM. I was a member of an organization called SIRD, or International Society of Devine Realization.

Self-realization that comes about as a result of long term, in the present- moment practice mantra meditation. Oddly enough, from half a block away, my teacher and the extremely popular Maharishi looked identical. If one didn’t know better, there would have been identity confusion.

I will spare you a full-blown explanation of my practice. Neither did I that night at the restaurant attempt in the least to impress upon Steve the benefits of meditation.

For the purpose of this story, it will suffice to say that during that very specific period of my life, my mantra practice had gathered up into a powerful, invulnerable daily, self-discovery, and self-improvement practice. And years later, I realize it was to the young man’s benefit (or detriment?) that it was at that point he and I entered into that evening’s friendly debate.

The friendly back and forth was as old as time practically. Your faith against mine. What is faith? Is there a god? Who or what determines where we go after death? How can you be so sure of your biblical study considering its origins? (A man dominated doctrine formed in ancient Europe).

He would counter with: ‘how can you be so sure that your way is the right way?’ Most of you know how these encounters go. How can you, me, the scholars calling out from their specific corners of flawless expertise know, really know, what way is the right way, the only way?

You can’t.

That others, members of the church, clergy, the real ‘pros’ could turn me and my arguments into mincemeat were not lost on me. They could probably, and for the brief term, have me doubting my own position on these matters.

But just in that fact, there is cause for concern. The intellectual self-assuredness of the church, (any and all churches!) in enforcing its time strengthened beliefs and perspectives. Unless one is involved daily in this discussion, they stand little chance of arguing successfully against the full timers. So, ‘it’s my way or the highway’ backed up by thousands of years of hell and brimstone, a deeply dug in, long term scholarly path hardened and polished from lifetimes of working from the pulpit and the confessional.

At least in my case, I have to remind myself that in the question of faith and God; I have equal rights and equal say to the most studied of all the clergy.

I’m saying that perhaps you are far more qualified in these matters than I am.

So my suggestion to Steve was simply that you didn’t have to seal in blood your belief in anything. That there was no hell. How do you know there’s a god, old man with long white beard, white? Black? Up there somewhere counting every hair on your head? Who says, who can say, by what credentials, that the old man isn’t an old woman up there in heaven running the show?

Or maybe god is a handsome, built young man or a drop dead beautiful woman, who can say? The mythic Greek pantheon almost becomes attractive because they weren’t above assigning god powers to incredibly shaped ladies… true goddesses.

Anyway, as we went about closing up the restaurant, it was almost 11:30 PM, shutting down the kitchen, taking out the garbage, removing the cash from the cash register, prepping for tomorrow, the daily shut down ritual; our conversation was approaching its natural end.

It was as though the time on the clock was also determining a hard close to our topic of discussion. The young man had some thirty minutes prior, showed signs of backing down. This isn’t the right term. Backing down, it was more like a sad acceptance on his part. Sure, I questioned my motives for skewering his firmly held beliefs. His deeply felt desire to enter the priesthood.

What was I gaining from the exercise? I reset in my head to make sure there was no pleasure taken from helping this boy decide that perhaps his path was not paved in gold, was not foolproof, was not to be his destiny.

I threw in things like: ‘Hey, we all have to decide what works for us.’ Or, ‘you’re so young and you have your life ahead of you. Are there others involved in influencing you, your current thinking?’ As he was a young man and in those days, one mostly assumed one was straight. I tried that angle of questioning: ‘Do you have a girlfriend? You’re a good-looking guy. Think of the god given fun you could have right now.’ This was in response to a comment of his that confirmed he was opposed to partaking in sexual activities.

I said things like ’It’s perfectly alright for you to make these decisions. All I’m suggesting is that you thoroughly explore the thinking. Really look at what’s being offered over the long haul. The payback or huge lack of. How many church leaders, regretful, have ended up nursing a bottle in the private confines of their church study preparing next week’s church message, greased by alcohol?’

‘Oh, no, that could never happen to me…’ was his response. I’d back off and try another tack.

It wasn’t right to damn the priests or any other teachers so I tried to avoid this, rather more of an informational sharing.

I stayed away from the current scandals that had came to light of the preachers chasing altar boys. And how the Vatican rushed forward to protect and defend those who’d been busted for inappropriate behaviors with the youth.

I mentioned the recent rash of sex scandals unleashed by certain top Hindu teachers.

I didn’t bring up the question that asked: were the preachers who abused boys and girls people who had entered the priesthood so that they could take advantage of a poorly designed system?

Or, the other part of that question and just as important: was the strict and prohibitive monastic existence promoting the decision that leads unhappy clergy into damaging behavior?

Just to be clear: we find this issue in every religion on the planet. None are immune. But Steve had his sights on the Catholic Church.

Carefully, I asked about his upbringing. He said his old man was a real prick, a piece of work. This, of course, added some light on the possibilities, the reasons for… I chose not to pursue this too much.

Steve surprised me. ‘I prayed that if God helped me with my dad I’d the right thing, I’d find the right way.’ There it was again, his dad, clearly a class-a ass hole the stimulus for his current desire to serve god.

‘You don’t need to explain anything to me Steve, you seem to be doing fine now.’ I felt he’d entered an area that was out of my ability to respond to much less explain. I decided that if he said no more of his dad then that would be that. He didn’t so that was that. But my curiosity was piqued.

Something there no doubt. It just didn’t fit that an eighteen year old on the cusp of things in his young life should throw it all into one thing because a ‘wing and a prayer’ re his old man. That things had settled between he and his dad could have been explained away in many different and far more valid ways.

Still, I realized inwardly, questioning what right I had taking him to task.

So many youths never find a path, a way. That’s why our society is so screwed up, the original questions remain, are not going away. Those choosing to live the monastic role better have all their ducks firmly in a row because the discussion me and the kid were having was laughable compared to the shit storm he was sure to face once he formally embarked upon that life.

And yet it occurred to me that if he was to be ‘freed’, it might have to be now. Later on, he’d be hopelessly steeped in the bullshit that so many had followed. Think: Inquisition, and the church’s position on women. Think: who were the authors of all the doctrines collecting dust in the vast Vatican libraries, the Bible? Basically, as went the common jab at the time: who died and assigned you god buddy? What women in those ancient times were involved? Who wrote the Bible? Who transcribed and translated the text?

These are issues and questions that should impact upon how one blindly throws themselves into a belief system.

For me, it was the blind leading the blind. You know what I mean? Who knew for sure? Wasn’t it all based on a very confused hunch?

I never fully shook the notion I was really attempting to dismantle the young man’s belief system. By what right? In fact, there were moments when I asked myself if I was crossing some sort of ethical boundary.

In hind sight I realize this could’ve been the comment that caught my attention. There was something obviously wrong in a young man determining that he could not dip into the joys of sex! This is the kind of sentiment that very well may have motivated me to call this kid onto the carpet, as they say. It just as easily could have been that the conversation began after he asked if I’d accepted Christianity. I do not recall now.

I’ll never forget the young man’s look of letdown. It was just a moment. I can’t say crest fallen, but shaken, yes. Near the end of our conversation, I attempted to backpedal a little. He quickly interrupted and thanked me for the time we spent.

He thanked me for opening his eyes to the reality.

Shortly after, at summer’s end, we both went our different ways. I moved to Michigan. He left before I did as high school age students often did. Of course, I never saw him again.

I hope he’s done well.

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Tom Jacobson

Tom Jacobson

Discovered the world of Medium some years ago. Amazing! Published first book, romantic adventure in Guatemala and Nicaragua, on Amazon. Title Lenka: Love Story.