Wise Companions

This post is inspired by Michael Mervosh, one of the wisest companions I've had the luck to learn from.

Next to my dining table I have a large photo of Waimea Canyon in Kaua'i, though no photo can really do it justice. When you're there and looking down into it, you see infinite layers of rich green life spread over uncountable canyons, gullies, and twisting hills. When I first looked into Waimea this richness and complexity made me feel that I was looking right into the human psyche. I imagined that each little canyon was one of our stories about ourselves; each twist in the land an engraved experience of some kind; each stream a habit. As water channels through the terrain and sunlight refracts off rocks and leaves, I imagined seeing the unique pattern of one person's psyche as they moved through life—reacting to this, following a deep habit here, forming a new one here.

How do these canyons and gullies form within our own psyches? Increasingly I believe that most represent a time when, particularly as a child, we encountered something impossibly hard, something intolerable or overwhelming. These were times when we needed to be met in a certain way by adults and were not. Times when we lacked "wise accompaniment". I don't mean this to be a dark view of life. Even the most capable adult will not meet a child's every need, and even the luckiest child does not always have a wise adult when needed. Yet how we're accompanied in these formative years matters and shapes us.

Wise accompaniment is not only needed during dark times. It also makes it more likely that we'll look up and notice the mountains in our terrain—the unique strengths we must discover in order to find enduring confidence and purposefulness.

So what does it mean to have wise accompaniment? It's an answer as varied as human character and conditions, but I've noticed a few patterns. As a wise companion, an adult is able to model self-awareness, empathy, authenticity, and other important behaviors; to lovingly mirror back to a child what they see in them; and to mentor, creating opportunities and challenges for growth. For younger children these wise companions may be parents or guardians, though they don't have to be. For teens they will usually be adults from outside the family.

When a young person interacts with wise companions, they are relating to guides on their journey. The journey is still theirs. The psyche forming is theirs. But they're relating to adults who help them gain awareness over what's happening within. I strongly suspect that how we relate to our wounds and strengths is more important than the wounds and strengths themselves. Do we notice our wounds? Are we ashamed of them or able to gaze at them tenderly? Do we see our towering strengths and believe they are possible to move toward? So much depends on this awareness.

By the time a young person reaches adulthood they'll have a fairly developed terrain within, though never a static one. Their relationship to this terrain will make all the difference. Will they seek fame or fortune above all else, ignoring relationships and their own bodies, unaware that they're being driven by profound wounds? Will they find their capacity to create deep and loving relationships? Will they discover and develop their talents, such that they find meaningful work which brings their gifts into the world? These are the stakes. But where does one go to learn this?

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We hope that much of this wisdom can come from parents, but as children become adolescents and differentiate from their family of origin, the trail often gets lost. Our society does not seem to offer a place where wise accompaniment can consistently be found.  Some adolescents may find it in religious groups, and some (few) may find it in school, but I suspect these together are a very small minority. To me this is our greatest opportunity to improve education. It's a bigger opportunity than the best progressive learning or the most sophisticated educational technology. Our opportunity is to evolve the meaning of teacher toward the vision of a wise companion.

How often are teachers hired because of the deep work they've done on themselves, such that they've looked deeply into their own psyches and begun learning how to navigate within? How often are teachers given the support to learn how to hold space for adolescents, as young people face the overwhelming tasks of stepping into adulthood, developing sexuality, finding new forms of friendship, and locating their place in the world? The ease of answering "almost never" to these questions should show us the scale of the opportunity we have.

It may appear that this is too tall of an order. Clearly teachers must still facilitate academic learning, some of which has traditional components that must be mastered. Is it reasonable to expect them to do that AND be wise companions? My answer is that it's hard, but my experience thus far of leading a school with this aspiration has convinced me this is possible. A small number of teachers like this exist; as do a much larger number of teachers who want to become like this and could do so with the right training.

I'm writing this post and doing the work I do because I felt a profound lack of wise accompaniment as a teen. This gave me to the longing for this work.  It fuels me to grow toward being a wise companion for young people. It makes me wonder how to create schools and develop faculty who have this capacity, together with the skills to create deep academic learning. We each have the complexity of Waimea Canyon within us - will we explore it? Who will show us? Let's be the kind of companion we'd like to have for an adventure like this.