Want to drive your young children insane? Take them along when you go out for lunch or dinner with a friend. When the meal ends, order coffee after coffee and talk about a bunch of adult stuff. With each refill watch the squirming, sighing, and eye-rolling escalate. See how many refills it takes before complete child meltdown.
What is wrong with adults? I used to wonder this whenever I found myself stuck in that nightmarish restaurant scenario as a child. How can they just sit there, just talking and talking and talking about boring stuff, not doing anything?
To child-me, this was one of life’s great mysteries: Why are adults so boring?
Now that I am an adult, I get it. Now that play and time with friends is a luxury. Now that my body no longer recovers instantly from the kind of everyday abuse child-me put it through.
I know now that even if you had sat child-me down and had explained why adults enjoy sitting and talking with their friends for hours and hours, I wouldn’t have understood.
There is canyon that divides the old and the young. It can only be filled by experience.
I have two nephews. Both are in their twenties. Both are interesting and intelligent young men in their own unique ways. Both have already faced their share of adult struggles—heartbreak, unemployment, birth, bureaucratic headaches, disappointment. I’ve watched them grow up from a distance, seen the inevitable changes, tried to be a friend when and how I could.
One of the perks of being Cool Aunt Who Lives Far Away is objectivity. I exist at a safe distance, physically and emotionally, from the drama. Or do I?
In the past year, I’ve had a few experiences with my nephews that have pushed me out of the “objective and supportive observer” chair. I’ve had to realize that they’re not kids anymore. We’re all adults and it’s time we learned to relate to each other that way.
I have not been completely successful at this.
The canyon of experience dividing us is real. And frustrating, from the side I’m standing on.
A few years back, I was accused of having never been twenty-three. My accuser, in case you had any doubts, was twenty-three, and drunk, and waking Prez and I up at 3:00am for the umpteenth time that month. My anger was unfathomable to his twenty-three year old mind. The irony of his statement is that I have been twenty-three; I remember being twenty-three. I remember that I was selfish and self-entitled, just like him. Just like many (most?) twenty-somethings. It was he who had never been forty-two. He was the one who could not possibly have known what I was thinking and feeling.
The old and the young stand on opposite sides of the canyon. On one side, youth, energy, and naivety squirm and sigh and roll their eyes. Why are old people so boring? What is wrong with them? I’m never going to be like that! On the other side, age, weariness, and experience order yet another coffee, shake their head, and wish for the day when those snot-nosed little brats will cross over and “get it”.
I don’t want that to be me. I don’t want to be so jaded that I can’t allow the young their chance to make all the same mistakes I did. Those mistakes and their consequences are what got me to the other side of this divide. I have empathy now because of the damage my selfishness caused. Honestly, how many of you in the Over 40 category reading this right now look back at your younger self and think, “Wow, I was kind of a dick”?
We didn’t think we were dicks back then, did we? Everything we thought or said or did was justified because EVERYTHING WAS ABOUT US.
Secure in the knowledge that the moon and the stars and the sun revolved around us, we took risks, we forged new paths, we looked life in the face and dared it to do its worst. We dreamed big because the world was made for us and everything was possible.
I don’t remember the exact day I woke up on the other side of the canyon. It was sometime in my thirties, though. Maybe if I’d had children it would have happened earlier—it’s easier to stay selfish without small humans depending on you. Whenever it happened, I do recall feeling a sense of smallness. It wasn’t discomforting, this smallness. Quite the opposite. All those big dramas of my younger days became insignificant because I had seen enough of the world to know how petty they really were. Romance still existed but love was more important because romance comes and goes, love endures. I stopped looking outside myself so much for validation and praise—hard work was its own reward. I acknowledged my shortcomings but accepted that every human is flawed, so I also forgave myself. I stopped trying to make everyone happy because it’s an impossible task that breeds resentment. At the same time, I let myself care more about other people and stopped expecting everyone else to care about me.
This side of the canyon is aches and pain, loss, regret, and the tick of the clock. Life is finite over here. But this side of the canyon is also serenity, wisdom, love, camaraderie, loyalty, and stories. Oh, the stories!
As wonderful as it is over here, however, we need to let the young be young. We don’t have to applaud their mistakes but we do have to let them make those mistakes. The world needs energetic naivety as much as it needs thoughtful experience.
I look forward to the day my nephews and I will stand on the same side of the canyon. I hope we’ll be friends and share a coffee (well, tea for me), and talk about our younger days, and laugh. Until then, I think it’s time for me to stand back and let them live their lives, though I will occasionally shout“I love you!” into the void, just so they don’t forget.