I still remember my first encounter with Rainer Maria Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet". It was 1987. I was just sixteen years old at the time, but I had never felt so ill at ease in my own skin....or so alone.
During that period of my life I spent the great majority of my free time haunting the aisles of the public library, all but devouring the varied contents of the self-help shelves. I was searching for answers....a reason why I was alive, a reason to continue fighting to overcome the anorexia, a reason to believe it was not my fault, or my own isolated fate, that my young life felt so lonely, confusing, and hard.
But even more than that, I now believe I was searching for a point of reconnection... for some small proof that in my very loneliness, shame, and fear I was a part of something greater than myself - a human condition - that could only be survived once it was shared. That day, standing there in the library holding Rilke's words in my hands, I could almost believe I saw Tinkerbell herself briefly alight on the cover, tap her tiny wand, and wink at me. "Here it is", she whispered lightly. "Here is the guide who can take you there."
There is more than a bit of truth to the old adage that "when the student is ready, the teacher appears" because shortly thereafter, I met my first mentor, Annie*. While Annie didn't have personal experience with overcoming an eating disorder, she certainly knew what it was like to face a significant life challenge and need support. In the same way someone had once held up a mirror to her when she needed it most, she held up a mirror to the fighter within me, and then she walked with me until I was strong enough to sustain that vision of myself, for myself. I am here, writing to you today, because of my mentor.
We all need someone older and wiser to show us the ropes. We all need firsthand confirmation that life always looks easier when we are the one who is on the outside looking in. We all need to know that, far from doing something wrong, we are often doing something right when we encounter a significant obstacle - because each challenge comes into our presence like the Three Wise Men, humbly bearing precious gifts of knowledge, self-awareness, and newfound compassion for ourselves and those around us.
Most of all, we all need to feel a part of something greater than ourselves - a small but irreplaceable piece in a bigger picture - because when the challenge first presents itself to us, it often puts on quite a show and completely shatters our sense of connectedness. Maybe it is a layoff that swaggers into the room, laying us low with its confident assertion that from here on out the economy, and our prospects, can only get worse. And we are so blown away by the emotional impact that we assume we are the only one who won't make it through, find another position, even go on to bigger and better things that would not have been possible were it not for the lessons we are learning now.
Or perhaps it is a breakup, with its 24/7 musical and motion picture reinforcements that love sucks, nobody stays together anymore, and our path now leads us inexorably down the lonely road of aging singles with body aches, bad breath and baggage. We cower in the face of wrenching heartache, unable to understand why us, why now, why should we go on, and we cannot see in the upheaval of the moment the unveiling of a whole new us, shiny and excited for new life, new love, and the promise, not mere prospect, of new hope yet ahead.
We will not look around at our impatient, fast-track, five-minutes-to-fame-and-fortune world and find any proof that hope cleaves closely to hopelessness, or that faith is never closer than when faithlessness first occurs to us. But when we look into our mentor's eyes, hear their words, lean on their strength and have the humility to accept help when we need it most, we find hope and faith abiding there in abundant measure, cheering us on, checking our impatience with real-life stories of trials and eventual triumphs, and most of all challenging us to uncover the deeper passion and purpose our unique life holds, which is never more apparent than when all else that is unlike it is stripped away.
2009 is a year of golden promise. Those who encourage us now know that what comes down must go up again. The next time you find yourself feeling discouraged about the future, think about a person who inspires you to keep fighting. Then, call them up. Ask them how they have learned to find and live in the light of hope when everyone else around them persists in seeing only darkness.
Learn all you can from them - and then turn around and pass it on.
*pseudonym is used to protect privacy