Having a role model, a hero, a mentor, however you wish to call them, is not a bad thing. In the words of C.S. Lewis none of us are complete originals. We are all copies of one thing or another and we need guidance and foresight to tread paths we have not walked before. One disturbing thing I have seen several times is when mentors become idols. This happens at both individual and societal levels.
In my experience the worst kind of mentor a person can have is the one you can only praise and never engage in serious critique. Not all our influences are the same and therefore it is likely some are definitely better than others. This of course means it is possible that we can have bad influences as well. If we follow people no questions asked then we are in a very dangerous position. I have seen first-hand what happens when blind faith is mistaken for loyalty.
Like Kwaku Ananse no single person, or even group of people, is the reservoir of all wisdom. We must be humble and courageous enough to consider things from a different angle, to ask the probing questions. If we have total confidence in ourselves or in others to be always right, like the schemer of folklore, we might find everything come crashing down.
Those who challenge the status quo, the received wisdom, are often seen as disloyal. A person who tells his friend there’s something wrong with them often turns into an enemy. Isn’t it possible that the person who speaks truth to another is the one who truly loves them and not the one who wraps them in a cocoon of lies and indifference towards their failings? As the proverb goes, wounds from a friend are faithful.
At Kakum National Park in Cape Coast, Ghana, there is the world famous forest canopy walkway. When you take a walk on it, it creaks and croaks and sways with the weight of those on it. It gives the impression to the newcomer that it is about to give way in one terrible accident. However, in the decades since it has been open there has never been a single incident. They check it thoroughly and regularly to make certain its integrity. Just because they trust it does not mean they do not subject it testing. They do it because the safety of individuals is more important than their pride in their engineering or the revenue their principle attraction brings in. Similarly influencers affect the lives of real people. We cannot blindly submit to whatever they say because something really precious is at stake. If we hold ourselves to the immutable standards of truth, love and righteousness there should be nothing we cannot ask the hard questions of.
One of my heroes is N.T. Wright. He once said “Heroes are meant to be engaged with, not stuffed and put on a pedestal.” When heroes become mute idols who we can not address neither will they address us, we lose the opportunity to learn and grow. Just as in academia advancement comes through challenging the paradigm, we cannot develop if we accept things just because they are the way they are.