I didn’t know that I could gain a lot by valuing the perspectives of people who are older and yet…

My response to friends who asked for a note for their child’s 13th birthday.

Dearest L,
You’re 13. You don’t need to pay any attention to what us old folks say. But from watching you since you were little, I suspect that you will think and ponder over this, even though you’ll make your own sense of the present, past, and future.

Writing something for you makes me wonder who would’ve written to me when I was 13. My grandparents were not alive, which is similar for you now. But a big difference between us comes from how actively your parents have cultivated a garden of uncles and aunties for you. It didn’t occur to me to cultivate my own relatives to make up for the grandparents I never knew. But our dear departed Auntie Ann, from a very young age, recruited older people into her circle of friends.

Knowing that making friends across generations is possible leads to a new question: What if someone had tried to get my attention and suggest that was worth making friends of—or at least listening to—people from the older generations? I’ve been thinking about this lately especially in the context of politics and social change. There were people of my parents’ generation who were very active as young adults in left-wing political parties after World War II. Then, as everyone started to learn about the horrors of the Soviet Union under Stalin, they had to make a path out of political parties allied to the USSR and into a new way of working together to promote the ideals that they had held and mostly still held. I now think I could’ve gained a lot of perspective from them about how difficult it is to change society, how much patience one has to have to collaborate with other people, how important it is to articulate what one’s deepest values, how to decide when to let go of working so hard on some project that is not working well and leaves one without enough time to be playful with friends, and much more.

Anyway, back to my question, I think the answer is that I would not have heard the suggestion. I was confident that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes as the previous generation had made – no, never!

So there’s a paradox. When I was young I didn’t know that I could gain a lot by valuing the perspectives of people who are older and yet, as I got to their age, I understood how I could’ve done things more effectively, more happily, more helpfully if I had heard their voices years before.

This note is not meant to be read as saying: “L, you must listen to your elders.” No, all I hope is that you ponder on the paradox of not being ready to learn what later you wish you had learned earlier—or at least that you keep a lookout for paradoxes in general as you keep growing in all your different ways.

Lots of love,
Uncle Peter

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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