When the Student is Ready, a Teacher Emerges

“Suffering and joy teach us, if we allow them, how to make the leap of empathy, which transports us into the soul and heart of another person. In those transparent moments we know other people’s joys and sorrows, and we care about their concerns as if they were our own.”
– Fritz Williams

Today I got a call from a young man who wanted to express his gratitude and appreciation for my influence in his life five years ago. Without even knowing it, he had also left a mark on my life as well.

He was a young, 21-year-old with a very colourful upbringing. He was worldly in some ways, naïve in many others. He wanted to work for me and asked to be mentored so that he could be the best he could be in his newly-found career. He was malleable and keen to learn whatever this business would teach him, and I was interested in showing him the ropes and teaching him everything I could. Within weeks, it soon became apparent that something else was going on in his life.

His dearest, sweetest friend was dying from an autoimmune disease, and one day soon after starting his new career, she died. Sarah left this world much too early. Her presence and ultimately her absence profoundly affected him. My new protégé was grieving a massive loss. He was lost, trying to find his way in the world. At work, he was intense – every task given he would embrace with gusto, but within a short time he would waiver, lose momentum, squandering yet one more opportunity. Simple things like showing up for work or being engaged in his job became difficult.

During this time, I was going through my second divorce. I was grieving my own losses in life, stressed out about where my own life was going. I was facing lawyer fees and expensive court costs, sleepless nights and emotional worries, the painful process of shedding the old to embrace the new. Perhaps that’s why this young man and I connected so well. It felt like we were walking parallel lines.

Being present in his life was a good distraction from mine, and it was doing something constructive while my life was being deconstructed. I focused on the task at hand. After all, I had to make a success of this young man so that something in my life mattered. Keeping him motivated was challenging. I couldn’t give up on him and I would try different approaches to various obstacles hoping to reach him. I would have his undivided attention for a moment, then his disinterest took over. As I taught him the fundamentals of his career, my purpose took a turn as he asked more and more questions about the lessons of life. There was so much to tell him.

The day eventually came when I knew it was time to release him – I had given him my best and he would now go on, using the nuggets of information I had given him to build on who he was meant to be, moving to the next chapter of his young journey. We had come to an intersection, and this was our opportunity to get off the same road and head in our own opposite directions. We had indeed been encountering a parallel life.

As we parted ways, I remember telling him that I couldn’t wait to meet him as a 25-year-old. The man he would become with all his bright ideas, tenacity to achieve greatness and desire to make a difference in the world. He has a servant’s heart – giving is his reward. And so, today he informed me – just several weeks left in his 25th year – that was accepted at the University of Waterloo and would eventually study in the field of autoimmune disease. He wanted me to know how proud I could be of him as he sojourns on his path to greatness.

Today he was grateful, and thanked me for never giving up on him, for teaching him things that he had never been exposed to growing up, for being hard on him, for being present in his life. How wonderful it is, to hear thank you from the most unsuspecting source… to know that while my own life was changing, I was changing another’s. The career that was meant to be the making of him was the very tool that would push him in other directions.

This young man has stepped into his future, and is wise beyond his years simply for the willingness to accept the pain of growth, eager to hear the lessons at the feet of his friend and mentor, and hungry to allow wisdom to mold him into more.

We never know the lives being influenced by the words and actions of our life. I’m grateful that I was able to pour into him, the little that I had to give. He was able to find fragments of gold in the lessons I was offering him. That’s the thing about learning lessons – they come from sources we least expect. He taught me that even during my own hardships that I could still contribute. He showed me that my own greatness is really about the little things that I have inside of me that I can share with others in their journey.

I truly believe that people come into your life for a reason, and for a season. He’s right – I couldn’t be more proud of the man he has become.

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