The Empty Cup—Mentorship

Curtis R. Joseph, Jr./Opinion

As he prepared to leave home to fight in the Trojan War, Odysseus placed the care and custody of his palace and his son, Telemachus, in the hands of his trusted friend, Mentor. At the time of Odysseus’ departure, Telemachus was only an infant. As the story goes, approximately twenty years passed before Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. By then, young Telemachus had come of age. Given this background, we can easily see how vital Mentor’s role was to Telemachus’ maturation. Without Mentor’s guiding hand, the young man wouldn’t know what he didn’t know.

Modern usage of the term ‘mentor’ signifies someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less-experienced colleague. Although Homer wrote of the mythological Mentor near the end of the 8th century BCE, the current meaning only dates to the 1700s. Nevertheless, it is a concept as old as time itself. And one that has been recounted across many cultures.

That said, one of my personal favorites tells the story a wise Zen master, who drew people from afar to seek his help. In turn, the master would teach his students and show them the way to enlightenment. On one such occasion, the master received a visit from a particular scholar, who said, “I have come to ask you to teach me about Zen.” However, it was immediately obvious to the master that the scholar was already full of his own opinions and perceived knowledge. By that, the scholar often interrupted the master, and he typically spent more time speaking than listening.

Ultimately, the master suggested that they have tea. While pouring tea for his guest, the master continued to pour, even after the cup overflowed and spilled onto the table, the floor and the scholar’s clothing. Confused by the master’s actions, the scholar cried, “Stop! The cup is full already. Can’t you see?” To this, the Zen master smiled and calmly replied, “You are like this cup — so full of ideas that nothing more will fit in.” And, with that, the master sent the student away, only to return when he could do so with an empty cup.

In this regard, the master highlighted the fact that the mentor-mentee relationship, like most relationships, operates on a two-way street, with each party bearing the responsibility for playing their respective role.

As I age, my mind drifts, from time to time, to the many mentors from whom I’ve been blessed to learn. Beyond those who have assisted me throughout my legal career, I think of Mrs. Culpepper, my 4th grade teacher, who encouraged me to record my thoughts, and to spend time expressing myself through the written word. I think of Georgia Lee, my high school history teacher, who nurtured my love for studying history and politics. I think of my aunt, Eula Mae Horton, who encouraged me to speak in public forums. I think of Eddie Kozak, my drum teacher, who did not suffer fools. Aside from my mother, Mr. Kozak may well have been the most demanding teacher that I’ve had. Very simply put, my list of Zen masters goes on and on and applies across many disciplines.

According to the prevailing notion of his day, conventional wisdom held that Socrates was the wisest of all. However, for his part, Socrates offered, “I know that I know nothing.” How amazing! It speaks volumes that someone of his intellect was capable of essentially saying, “I don’t know.”

Throughout our lives, we will encounter varying types of mentors. Some will assist us in honing our craft. Some will champion our cause. Others will lend an ear in times of need. From time to time, the mentee may even assume the role of mentor. Again, this relationship presupposes a measure of reciprocity. Trust, however, that the relationships forged in the process will last a lifetime.

For example, I recently attended the funeral of Dr. James Moreland, whom I encountered during my Junior year of high school. Dr. Moreland was, no doubt, a Zen master, and he was possessed of that certain something that made students want to learn from him. As the service neared its end, the official posed the following question to those of us gathered in attendance, “Who are you mentoring?” And, to the mentee, I would add, “Are you holding up your end of the bargain?”

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