What is the best piece of advice someone has given you?
Someone asked that question and for a moment I couldn't think of an answer.
My father often mentioned that life isn’t fair. I don’t think he offered this comment as advice as much as a statement of fact he had learned to be true. He grew up disadvantaged as far as education, social standing, and money were concerned. But he had above-average intelligence and a huge curiosity as well as compassion for people’s needs. He worked hard to make life a little fairer for people in worse circumstances than his.
I didn’t understand his words of wisdom until much, much later, when I was hit with the overwhelming blow of low income and single parenthood.
It took me a while to realize that it’s not what life does to you that matters, but what you do with life. I read the words of the psalmist again and again, “Who passing through the valley of Baca (bitterness) make it a well.” So I started climbing out of my personal valley of sorrow and bitterness. And climbing. And climbing. Sometimes it was just clambering.
A second piece of advice came to me much later. I don’t know who said it. But the words were simple: Be yourself. Don’t try to be like some great person. Prefer mentors to models. The temptation is always to use the rich, famous and powerful as models – the celebrity, the powerful, the top icon on the totem pole. Yet a celebrity is just a well-known person, someone puffed by PR people, not necessarily someone with wisdom to share. A mentor is someone who is ready to guide a younger person through life's rough paths.
Be yourself is not advice for the masses. I look at photos in the daily newspaper of persons who have been newly hired, promoted, or given awards. There are these rows of mug shots, one after another. Sometimes, without exception, they all seem to look alike, especially the women: same arched eyebrows, same eye makeup, same hairstyle, same hair color, and sometimes same smile – mostly lots of teeth and little genuine joy.
When I started writing and speaking, I was looking for models, not mentors. I began speaking publicly at a time when women in the church were expected to keep silent, so models were few and mentors even rarer. I tried to copy men, only that was a problem. A woman trying to sound like a man has a tough battle, lacking the voice and the stature. I couldn’t roar. I wasn’t about to pound the pulpit. I wasn’t about to sit back on my chair on the platform with one ankle resting on the other knee like a man, so I had to learn to do it my way.
I found mentors in older women, not those who had been writers and speakers, but who were wise in living. For years I looked for an older woman in my community to spend time with, first through circumstances of living close to one such woman and then deliberately.
The first was Hannah Willems who lived across the tracks from us. She was a great encourager. Then there were Viola Wiebe, former missionary to India, and Esther Ebel, former dean of women at Tabor College. Each had persisted and excelled in areas without women models. They intuitively understood my longings and hopes and said, “Katie, you can do it.”
They had lived in a different era and sometimes a different country, but they understood that women of any era should be given opportunity to use their gifts. I always returned from a visit with one of them ready to pick up my own aspirations once again.
So what advice would I pass on? Probably these two cherished items that were passed on to me: Life isn’t fair but make it fair for others. Be true to yourself. To achieve that goal find a mentor. Models won’t always measure up.