As I was visiting with a friend at my favorite breakfast place in Las Vegas, The Coffee Pub, another friend and the best server in the world, Lauren, overheard the part of my conversation when I said, “Be careful or you’ll end up like me in that area!” Without missing a beat, Lauren told my friend, “She’s your cautionary tale,” and we all threw our heads back in laughter. I was not insulted in any way; I own it. There are areas of my life I’m still trying to improve and there are areas I’m proud I transformed; I always want my younger friends to avoid the pitfalls I experienced. Just like parents warning their children, those of us who have traveled a path of learned lessons want to shout to all we care about, “Watch out! Take the other fork in the road!” Logically, we know everyone has to learn their own lessons in their own way, but that doesn’t stop our natural desire to try to distract them from potential emotional or physical pain.
Now, thanks to Lauren, I use that phrase with those that others may refer to as mentees; I am your cautionary tale. It feels good because it’s lighthearted and it makes what I’ve been through, whether it was done to me or by my own choice, be of use to others. I’ve never considered myself a mentor and maybe that’s because of my idea of what that means. It seems like mentors are there to advise you, even on things they haven’t personally experienced. There is an expectation of them to be smarter than the mentee. A cautionary tale simply is. It is witnessed and shared rather than preached. It sounds like, "This is what I did (or was done to me); this is what I did to solve or transform it; this is how beautiful it feels now that I’ve come out on the other side." Or…"this is what I’m going through; I haven’t figured out how to solve it; try to avoid getting to this place because it’s difficult to get out."
When I’m asked who my mentors were, I can’t think of anyone because I never had a formal mentor/mentee relationship. But when I think of who my models were and are, I have an abundance of faces that come to mind. I sometimes name someone, like Claudine Williams, as my mentor because that word is so relatable to most people, but she truly was a model to me and, in some ways, a cautionary tale. I’ve had models of goodness, kindness, courage, and I’ve had models of evil, meanness, and fearfulness. Certainly, I’ve had cautionary tales, like my father and his addictions, his overspending, and his unhealthy relationship with his body; and yet, I had to go down my own path in all those areas before finding my way out and I’m still working on some of it. Why do I keep thinking my warnings will make a difference? Did I listen to the many sirens that went off in my ear by those who surrounded me? It’s like the well-intentioned but misinformed people who want to “save and rescue” a victim of human trafficking. You can support them, but you can’t save them—that’s their job and ultimately their joy.
I do believe I was a cautionary tale to my nieces, and they consciously developed habits and behaviors to avoid some of what they witnessed me struggle through like overspending and unhealthy eating. I’m so happy they were able to break the family patterns. This doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the positive role I’ve played in the lives of many whose paths I’ve crossed. I realize and am grateful that speaking out about the shameful secret I protected for decades has helped not only me, but many who heard my testimony, my speeches or saw my documentary. I choose not to take myself too seriously and the cautionary tale title makes me laugh, as the truth often does.
I expect many responses to this message, with some explaining to me their personal definitions and experiences of mentors. I hope you’ll share your results of mentoring so I can learn more. I also hope you’ll share what part cautionary tales have played in your life so we can honor them in the way they deserve.
President, The Zen Speaker
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