Why mentors and role models are so important

We all can be living examples of integrity, compassion, kindness, commitment and perseverance.

In the last month, after watching most of the good movies on Netflix, I stumbled onto a long-running television series, “Grey’s Anatomy,” which I’d never seen, despite the fact that it takes place at a mythical hospital in Seattle.

As many of you already know, the characters are compelling and interesting. The show covers vast social, emotional and medical territory. But it’s also a story about young interns and residents, who are mentored by their more senior physicians. It reminded me how important teachers and coaches can be in our lives.

I may be approaching 70, but I will never forget my third-grade teacher, Mr. Riviera. I was a bit of a smart aleck in third grade, and one morning he put nine 9s on the black board and asked me to add them up. I spent almost an hour trying to figure out how to solve this problem. When I finally gave up, he showed me a neat trick.

I was humbled and learned an important lesson about humility — one I’ve never forgotten.

I’ve had many other mentors in my life who taught me valuable lessons and were excellent role models. There was Andy Curry, one of my favorite professors in graduate school, who taught me to see the poetry in my patients’ lives. And Dr. Gelberman, who lost both his wife and 4-year-old daughter in the Holocaust, who taught me about resilience and about his rising out of the “dark night of the soul” after the tragic death of his family.

Murray Bilmes, one of my supervisors in graduate school, taught me the art of listening with my entire being. And then there was Jim Dugish, my supervisor when I was an intern, who died during the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. He taught me to be courageous as a therapist. Clarence Chinn Sensei, one of my aikido teachers, taught me how to be a better student.

I’ve been very fortunate to have so many wise and helpful mentors. They all contributed to my growth as a psychologist and, more importantly, as a person.

In my career, I’ve had the privilege to help train and teach scores of young psychologists and mental health counselors. I hope that I have lived up to the examples set by my teachers.

Yes, like in “Grey’s Anatomy,” I’ve been hard on some of my students — especially the ones who had potential to be great therapists. Like so many of my teachers who helped me, I wanted them to dig deep into themselves to find the healer within.

All of us have the opportunity to be a model to others — our children, our friends, our neighbors and our colleagues — even if we are not in a position of authority. As we learn from each other, we have the opportunity to teach what we have learned. We can be role models to our children by being the person that we hope they will become. We can be living examples of integrity, compassion, kindness, commitment and perseverance. This is the best way to share what we have learned.

I also will always remember Manny Sternberg, a counselor at a camp I went to when I was 10 years old. I felt that Manny really saw me for who I was. He understood me in a way that few others did. He inspired me to be my best self.

Being a role model and mentor is a great gift. It keeps on giving.

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