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Finding Alfred – The Importance of Mentors

By Ben Mathewson on 5 September 2017

If you’ve ever watched the ‘Batman’ series of films produced by the masterful storytellers at DC comics, there is much to be enjoyed about them. Batman is the quintessential Hero archetype- using all the high tech tools at his disposal, inevitably to foil the efforts of the ruthless and cunning ‘bad guy’. The story always varies; but predictably, Batman’s strategic thinking and physical prowess win through, and by the end of the films, Gotham is a little safer- that is, until the next scheming evildoer appears. It’s what we all expect to see when we see a film about Batman.

If you scratch the surface of the narrative though and can see beyond the daring feats and combat gymnastics, you will see something more profound, and a crucial part of why Batman succeeds at being ‘Batman’- It isn’t the scars of previous battles, nor the trauma fueled thirst for justice, but rather the scenes where Alfred (Bruce Wayne’s butler and mentor) and Bruce converse- solving problems and speaking wisdom and truth to each another in the shadowy confines of the Batcave. 

It is an archetype that is persistent in a lot of films- and usually revolves around the older man giving of himself the wisdom that only age and experience can bestow- illuminating a new perspective that the younger and more direct might not have, or even pointing out a hurt that needs addressing. Think of Yoda and Luke Skywalker; Mr Miyagi and the Karate kid, Gandalf the Grey and Frodo, or Merlin as he was to King Arthur. While these are only fables, they exemplify a much higher and deeper truth-

Men need mentors.

My own mentoring story about mentorship goes a bit like this:

I was not the sort of person who always made friends easily. In the first years of my married life, I moved from job to job without really finding connections. I joined in on activities and stayed in touch with relatives, but still felt like something was missing. Often when you feel like something is missing you can’t really put your finger on it, so it seems to gnaw away at you until you are able to identify it. The identification eventually came in the form of a friendship I had made with an older bloke. Around that time I was banging away in my garden, being a dad, minding my own business, and ‘doing life’. I told this older guy I loved to garden, but what I didn’t know, was that he was a professional gardener- also looking to hire someone!

What happened within the next five years was a connection and a friendship unlike any other! I became not just another employee, but a friend. No topic was off limits: politics, sex, religion or past history. I got to know his habits, as he did mine. He would chide when I was going too slow, and help to pick me up when I was running on empty. I helped him by listening without prejudice to his thoughts and allowing him (nearly) full access into my own stumbling insights about life. Although I’ve moved on and work as a counsellor now, I still talk to him every now and then and sometimes ponder on his practical, sagely wisdom.

I am also a bit wiser to the yearning now, and sometimes see it presenting itself in teenagers. On the surface, Millennials seem apathetic, complacent and rebellious, but sometimes I perceive it, as poet Robert Bly says, as a ‘Hunger for the King in a Time with No Father’. – Where I live especially, fatherhood is a strained concept. There are lots of single mums; dads on drugs, out of the picture, or even fathers who don’t really know how to ‘be a dad’. Healthy male role models are hard to find- This isn’t a damning comment on the men around me, just a picture of how shallow the ‘mentoring well’ has become, with little to quench the thirst of a young man’s soul.

Sometimes I wonder, given how tricky it is, in this age to find ‘Alfred’s’, about how we as men can tap into the rich legacy of masculine wisdom and mentorship.

Could I suggest that the first answer might be, that if life has blessed you with some wisdom, health, and perspective- the challenge for you is to pass it on to someone who needs it? Maybe you could ask yourself ‘Who can I help on the treacherous road to manhood?’ or ‘Who can I touch by allowing them access to my life?’, and speaking as a younger man who loved his pop, could I go so far as to implore you older gents- please don’t believe your time is up! Younger men need your experience and your wisdom!

My advice- as I sit here, a healthier version of myself than that stumbling young man:

If you are older, wiser and healthy: Be an ‘Alfred’

If you are younger and have the energy: Find your ‘Alfred’.

… and don’t be so smug to believe you don’t need him.