Taylor: The case for moral mentoring

Our society delights in creating rules. Yet most of what we learn, we learn from others.

Whenever I travel, I tend to leave something important behind. One time, I forgot a comb.

So I bought one. On the back of the package, the manufacturer had printed directions for use: “Draw the comb from the roots of the hair out towards the ends.”

How else would you comb? From the ends towards the scalp? Crosswise?

It makes me think of those mandatory allergy warnings—like the one on an airline snack package of peanuts: “Caution. May contain peanuts.”

Our society delights in creating rules. Governments lay out legal codes, over which lawyers argue endlessly. Companies produce manuals and expect employees to operate accordingly. Churches split over moral rules; what one approves, another condemns.

Yet most of what we learn, we do not learn from rules and regulations. We learn from experience. We learn from others.

Long ago, this was called apprenticeship. The novice worked with a more experienced mentor, absorbing skill or knowledge almost by osmosis. Nurses, teachers, blacksmiths, plumbers, electricians—all used to learn their skills by working with, and learning from, a more skilled mentor. Today, the bulk of training for most professions comes in lectures and lesson plans. Their knowledge of their specialty has improved. But I’m not always convinced that the quality of their work has. Or their commitment to the people they serve.

To my mind, congregations should be mentoring centres. Places where fallible humans can learn from each other, where they can absorb patterns of thinking, and doing, and being, that can’t be reduced to a manual of procedures.

Learning to relate to others, to have a conscience, calls for mentors, not for regulations.

If we had to rely on written instructions, walking and talking would be university level courses.

And can you imagine the directions needed on every package of shoelaces?

“Take the lace on the right side of your shoe in your right hand, and the lace on the left side of your shoe in your left hand. Cross the laces across the top of the shoe. Take the right hand lace, which is now on the left side of your shoe, in your left hand, and the left hand lace in your right hand. Cross the left lace which is now on the right hand side over the right lace which is on the left. Now pass that left lace under the right lace so that the left lace still comes out pointing to the right. Using both hands, pull the two laces tight…”

Now you have to explain the rest of the knot—how to fold a lace back, wrap part of the other lace around it, pass it through its own loop, and draw both loops tight without tugging either end loose.

Yet somehow, most of us learn to tie our shoes in kindergarten, long before we could read such instructions, let alone comprehend them.

Because someone who knows how to do it guides our fingers, until tying shoe laces becomes second nature. We don’t even have to think about what we’re doing.

That’s how we need to learn morals and ethics, too.