Why We Must Teach Others of our Vices
Whether you like it or not, you are likely a role model of some sort. The human experience is intertwined with mentorship, and most of us are both mentors as well as mentees. For example, there is a reasonable chance that you have (or will have) kids, and parenting is perhaps the ultimate form of mentoring. There’s also a fair chance that you will work in a team-based environment where you must learn from those with more experience than you and teach those with less. Even without these more obvious examples, it is likely that someone somewhere is looking at you for inspiration or something to avoid (but hopefully not the latter).
As role models, it is natural for us to teach and act out our virtues. Courage, strength, justice, and temperance, for example, are very worthy virtues to aim at. We rarely, however, do the same with vices, such as cowardice, weakness, folly, and failure. Is this a potential shortcoming of the way we mentor others?
A Lesson from Star Wars
There’s a beautiful lesson on mentoring from Star Wars. Master Yoda trained Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi. He taught him about their “philosophy as a way of life”, as well as the power that comes along with mastering the Force. On his death bed, Yoda places a burden on Luke: “pass on what you have learned”.
Clearly, Yoda meant that Luke, as the last Jedi, must go forth and create a school so that a new generation of Jedi could emerge. And Master Luke did just that. He built a new Jedi temple and taught the ways of the Force to new younglings. Unfortunately, he lost one of his students to evil. This student, Ben Solo, destroyed everything Luke had created.
Cynical from his failure, Luke went into solitude. He became bitter and resentful and lost all of his confidence as a Jedi master. Yoda’s ghost comes to him at a particularly low moment (meaning the moment at which Luke decided to burn down the sacred Jedi texts) and informs him that he actually did not heed his instruction. He states:
“Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength. Mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”
Luke was quite literally a legend and did a great job of teaching his pupils about the Jedi virtues. However, he was also an imperfect person just like the rest of us. He had flaws. He stumbled. He failed. He was foolish at times and weak. Fundamentally, he was tempted by evil — the Dark Side — and was at risk of being enveloped by it. Unfortunately, he failed to show this side of himself to his pupils.
This is why Ben, his pupil that turned to evil, didn’t know how to properly deal with temptation from the Dark Side. He looked at Master Luke as an ideal, as a perfect Jedi, and felt that being tempted and somewhat seduced by evil wasn’t a normal thing. In other words, Ben’s image of Luke was completely unrealistic. When he felt himself slipping towards the Dark Side, he saw this as a form of weakness and a sign that he was supposed to fall to evil. He believed mistakenly that Master Luke, his ideal, had never felt such a thing.
Teaching Others our Failures
It is very tempting to want to show those who are looking up to us our virtues. It is unbelievably helpful to have an ideal to aspire to. At the same time, it is important that we understand that perfection doesn’t exist. No person is perfect, and so no mentor could possibly be.
Likewise, it is tempting to want to hide all of the times that we’ve failed. We would rather not talk about the times that we were cowards or the times that we weren’t aligned with justice. Discussing such things is hard for our ego, for one, and we often feel like we’d rather show others what to aspire to be instead of what not to. And that would all be great in a perfect world where perfect people exist.
“He who cannot find the way to HIS ideal, lives more frivolously and shamelessly than the man without an ideal.”
The fact is that nobody is perfect, and every single one of us stumbles through life between wrong and right. As mentees, we need to understand that it is natural to be weak sometimes, unwise, unjust, or a coward and that we can still aim for the higher good despite not always being virtuous. That does not make it good, but it makes the path to virtue achievable in the eyes of those who aim up, which makes them much more likely to aim up in the first place.
Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.