What does the death of a male mentor mean for your own identity as a man?
The funeral I am driving to, is that of Dr. G. Alec Stewart, a prominent physicist, and Dean of the Honors College where I went to school. In fact, it was his idea to even have an Honors College.
To me, he was THE mentor, benefactor, and advocate.
In my family, very few people went to college, and of those, nobody had gone beyond an undergraduate degree. We were not of means, and I suppose because of the difficulty in getting a degree, couldn’t find a means to get the means.
It’s a mindset to have – to not only value learning, but to take action to get it and use it. I found out only a month or two ago that my own father had a chance to go to college right out of high school, being of a poor family, the scholarships available to try for would have been his only likely way in his day.
The problem was, Dad didn’t show for the interview because his clothes were so threadbare he was too embarrassed to go.
Knowing what I know now, I could have slapped him silly for doing that. To him, thought, it wasn’t just pridefulness, but a belief that a man ought to do things right or not at all.
Which so many years later makes sense to me why he would be so hovering over me about how important learning is, and scholarships and achievement and all that.
And so one day, at age 17, I found myself in Dr. Alec Stewart’s office, nervous and clumsy, in threadbare clothing – an ancient suit coat from a second hand store – trying out for a full, room, board, and tuition scholarship.
I had a decent school record, but certainly not the pedigree of the prep school boys I was up against. And the look of me… The social awkwardness… All I had to offer Alec was an earnest curiosity about science.
He towered over me in greeting, squeezing my hand so hard I thought it might fall off, then retired to his wooden desk chair – the type a hard working man uses, not a cushy leather seat.
He crossed the fingers of his hands after swiping one across his moustache, and said, “So tell me, young Dobransky. What do you want to do here?”
I felt honored to be addressed with a manly name, my last name only, called immediately to state who I am and in one quick moment, what I proposed my formative academic years were precisely going to be about.
Alec was “momentous” in that way – not off-putting, but calling us to the grand, higher things in life, out of the everyday…
I told him just of my love for physics, chemistry, biology, philosophy, and not so shrewdly said I may have trouble deciding between them – so incredible to learn as they all equally are.
With a knowing wink, he said, “That’s okay. There’s more than enough time… In fact many of our students double major or triple major!”
A long time passed in silence, and I squirmed in my chair as he patiently experienced my presence in the room. And with time, I calmed, comfortable in the silence. He was thinking, plotting, finding in his mind where I might fit in the order of the institution he was building from scratch.
I could see the gears turning in his head, and I turned inward to my own.
Finally, “If there could be a way to join them all, Dr. Stewart, that’s what I will do. New ways of helping people…”
It surprised me how precise this statement was. Unrehearsed, and raw.
I hope it has at least in part proven true years later, because he set quite an impossible implied benchmark, not losing a beat:
“Well, yes, yes of course – Newton, Einstein, even Freud, all of them were men of synthesis. Take what came before and build new models. The very nature of science and progress.”
He leaped to his feet so suddenly it made my heart race, and over to a bookshelf he went. Pulling down a thick book, he handed it to me with the instructions to read it thoroughly. That it would be a good place to start my mission to come.
I was about to leave his office carrying the book, but turned to give it back. Whoops.
He chuckled in a loud, boisterous way, saying only, “Dobransky, you hold onto that. You can give it back some other time.”
Before it struck me what that meant, I was confused and thought it an odd thing to say at an interview where I may never see him again.
He then chuckled even harder with a wink and a sweep of his arms, shooing me back out to the waiting room, and my father.
Out on the street, my father said, “What’s that book?”
I looked at it, and finally realized I had just been given a scholarship, one that without, I likely wouldn’t have gone to college, or medical school after that, never travelled the world, or done what I do now. That’s just the way events string together – mess with one, and they all might change to something entirely different.
I’ll never see him again for real now. And I regret having lost the book, and even more, that I don’t even remember its name – just that it was about philosophy, and the history of science.
Maybe if I take this long roadtrip, I might have a sliver of a memory that brings back the title, and all the little details of what I remember of a mentor who made my life potential so much more than ordinary.
You have them too.
It’s through these men that your life has been shaped not just in its little events, but in its very POTENTIAL.
There were two times I made a trip to see Alec over the years, and found myself wanting to “impress” him or “honor” him with what I’ve done with the “raw materials” of career mission he gave me. Too humble to take credit, and too understandably busy to comb over the minutia, Alec of course sent me on my way with more books.
Now that he’s gone, there’s no more “impressing” to be done, just honoring his memory.
And his death.
His was more than “a life worth living.” It was a life that started thousands on lives worth living.
In death and what it means to us, we have a chance to see ourselves in the mirror in terms of how we can be most masculine in handling every little loss in life that is less than death itself.
Little deaths. The job loss, the loss of a relationship, the loss of youth, the loss of big opportunities. These “little deaths” are a masculinizing force in our lives.
In fact, if you have had men like Alec in your life, they ushered you through an initiation of sorts, an entry into manhood that today’s school matriculations, military tours, and the corporate world in general serve as insufficient stand-ins for, compared to the more ancient ritual initiations.
It’s not just the challenging situation that makes you a man. It’s the men who are there as your witnesses, your mentors, and your kind but stern benefactors.
Their role is to set a precedent for you – one that you can use all your life. These major changes in life, from school to school and job to job, relationship to relationship – sometimes they can feel like facing death – the unknown, the fearsome, the insecure or even dangerous territory.
But the men, the mentors, make this practice at facing death safe, and full of lessons.
And so the reason I say that “women are about birth and beginnings, and men are about death and endings” is that so much about masculinity faces the hard things, the cruel things, the obstacles, the strength to say “no” to some things and some people – to “kill” their desires in order to preserve your own, your mission – and in knowing that some day death will come for you too, urges you on for now at serving in your mission to society, that you will be remembered in a legacy.
Which Alec to me and so many, certainly will.
The ultimate lesson of “initiation” as a man is that we can tolerate thinking about death, facing death, and still LIVE.
If this is possible, then ANYTHING in your life is possible. Anything you want to achieve will have challenges, risks, and obstacles. It will have threatened losses and real losses, because the moment you make a hard decision, its alternative has been decided against, often FOREVER.
Want no regrets in life? Then turn on the Observing Ego I talk about in the MindOS Mastery Course, and use the nature and finality of death as a guide in your life – one that sternly urges you forward to what you were meant to be, and yet one which through the kindness and fatherly nature of the mentors you have had, shows you that YES, you CAN survive the unknown territory, the uncertainty of life, and every loss that’s inevitable along the way to that final loss.
Paul Dobransky, M.D. is a board-certified psychiatrist, public speaker and relationship expert who has treated more than 10,000 patients in 15+ years in clinical psychiatric care. Journalists and clients worldwide have sought Dr. Paul's advice on dating, relationships and all aspects of human psychology.
Dr. Paul pioneered MindOS, a new, patent-pending approach to understanding relationships, mood problems and stress. MindOS synthesizes all schools of therapy into a single, effective system-based approach that uses plain language to help people understand psychology and solve problems. Go to http://www.menspsychology.com/ to learn more.