We need others, and others need us

To preserve some of our family history, each week my son emails me a different question through a program called StoryWorth. My answers to each question become a chapter in what will eventually be made into a book.

A recent query was: “What did you learn from your parents?” Among the many questions over the weeks, it was relatively easy to answer, given my closeness to both. “My mother taught me to read early,” I began. “As a music teacher, she instilled in me an appreciation of music. And she taught me to be compassionate toward others. My father,” I continued, “emphasized thinking critically and independently. He introduced me to the constellations of the winter sky and endowed me with a deep love of the outdoors.”

But in my mind, the question was much bigger. Aside from my parents, so many people touch our lives. If our lives are like jigsaw puzzles, all of the people with whom we’ve crossed paths are pieces in that puzzle.

I feel very fortunate to have had many mentors who helped me in many ways. There were my parents, my sister, teachers, college professors, doctors, friends, employers and co-workers. Even my wife and children and a grandchild have made dramatic differences in my life. In summary, I think they all contributed in one way or another into making me a better human being.

But this thought of mentors and influencers goes much farther. How many lives have we touched and perhaps influenced in our lifetimes?

The Christmas movie classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” immediately comes to mind. James Stewart’s character George Bailey experiences his home town through an angel-induced scenario in which he never existed. Bailey gets to see firsthand how his absence profoundly affects him and others in the community.

It’s a very powerful theme. We can remember most of the people who played important roles in our lives. But can we recall those who we might have influenced, either positively or negatively?

The thought brought me back to mentoring and how important it is. In Boy Scouts, for example, I witnessed some youngsters who were disorganized “basket cases.” They seemed hopeless. But eventually they got with the program, some even reaching the highest rank — Eagle Scout. All it took were a couple of folks to take an interest — a scout leader, a parent, or a fellow scout.

I remember high school teachers who took an interest in students and really turned them around, and I was one of them. My geometry teacher was probably astounded by my thick-headedness. But she kept trying and I got through.

I was an undisciplined disaster during my freshman year of college. An older, mature roommate helped me get my act together — simply by setting an example and demonstrating the importance of studying.

Throughout my working life, I had several bosses who were patient and tolerant — who somehow saw my potential, even when I couldn’t see it myself.

Friends have been mentors too, providing constructive criticism when it’s been sorely needed, like telling me that perhaps a steep, 7,000-foot mountain might not be right for a guy in his mid-70s with a bad knee.

But perhaps my best mentor has been my wife, who possesses sound judgment and keen perspective on a host of issues. Without her steadfast love and guiding compass, my navigation in life would be difficult, to say the least.

I’ve had more than my share of mentors, but I’ve learned that for a lot of folks, all it takes are a few — a parent, teacher, an aunt or other relative, a friend. Sometimes just one person can change the trajectory of another person’s life and set them on a positive course.

Outside of the home, some help can be found through organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the YMCA and YWCA, churches, scouting groups, professional counselors and through school activities.

This is stating the obvious, but some things are so important that they need repeating: Whether pre-COVID or post-COVID, as we tend to think these days, we all need each other. We are certainly here to live our lives as best we can. But more importantly, we are here for each other. Our lives are inextricably connected and they all have value.

That was fictional character George Bailey’s epiphany on a snowy Christmas Eve long ago. It’s an awareness that pertains to all of us as we move into the future. By pulling together and extending helping hands, we can make that future quite promising.

A lifelong Alaskan, Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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