Talking to Young(er) People
Inter-generational discussions reveal certain tendencies
A few preliminaries. I myself, personally, am not that old. Now my friend, and NOR stalwart, Jim Schall, SJ, is really old. He’s 91 and counting. Pero como anciano sereno, no viejo nervioso. Still, a week ago on my birthday my little sister sent me a “chipper” card that read: “May your beer always be cold. / Sorry, you’re so old. The End.” This bit of doggerel to welcome me to my 73rd year!
That said, this very morning I found myself talking to young people. How young? In their twenties. Every Friday they are guests on an internet discussion panel that I host, WCAT radio’s “The Open Door.” Fortunately, other guests are in my age-cohort, although they (unlike yours unruly) are still young at heart.
So, what lessons have I learned about talking to young(er) people? Five points, tendencies to be fair, come immediately to mind.
1. They are not immune to “young-splaining.” They are ready to explain people and events that I’ve known and experienced. A fresh example: what Dorothy Day had to teach and what the ‘60s were about.
2. They are quick to research “on the cheap,” courtesy of Wikipedia. They do it even when we’re on air.
3. They are only vaguely aware that the social justice struggles of today — for example, righting a shameful inequality between the rich and the poor — are struggles that have raged throughout history.
4. They have not experienced how very quickly power corrupts. Corrupts even them…
5. They can’t imagine that they themselves will, in a relative blink of the eye, become “senior citizens.”
Happily, on reflection, five other tendencies of young people come to mind. They are at least as important as the first five.
1. They are curious. Mention someone or something with which they are not familiar and they will ask about it. Try George Orwell or the heyday of anarchy in Barcelona.
2. They express surprise. Say what? Wage slaves in the North could be treated as badly as African slaves in the South? No way!
3. They will read highly recommended books. E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful is one.
4. They are friendly. For a start, they are conversational “minglers” rather than “speechifiers.”
5. They open up new vistas to those of us in our cynical seventies!
Weighing up the positives and the negatives, I recall that Fr. Jim Schall often recommends to his readers Cicero’s De senectute (On Old Age). Not so long ago, I read it for the first time since I took third year Latin. Cicero wrote this essay when he was only 62. To give his words more gravitas, he attributed his remarks to Cato the Elder.
Cato, you might remember, was the Roman Senator who ended every speech with “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed). Cicero puts the following words in Cato’s mouth: “I can think of nothing more agreeable than an old age surrounded by the activities of young people in their prime.” All things considered, I welcome the sentiment. Of course, he also puts lots of good advice on offer: “If a man controls himself and avoids bad temper and churlishness, than he can endure being old.” Note the “if.”
Not that I myself, personally, am old. I’ve even made friends with some young(er) people who join the Friday panel. Heck, that puts me in a good position to re-read another of Cicero’s classics, De amicitia (On Friendship). Curious? You’ll be surprised. Highly recommended!