I was at a garden party last summer with my new baby. A group of twentysomethings smiled at her between bites of flatbread pizza and fruity, boozy popsicles. One of them admitted that the baby was cute, but asked: Doesn’t having a baby cramp your style? I told him I was really glad that someone was cramping my style, that I was starting to be afraid no one would ever cramp my style, that I’ve had so much time with my style! It’s one of the big benefits of being an old new mom.
If turning 30 meant saying goodbye to my young youth, then 40 is saying goodbye to my youth, period. It’s accepting that some of my wildest fantasies involve eight consecutive hours of sleep, or sitting down in a chair with a magazine, or trying out a new kale soup recipe. As I try to figure out this new stage of life, I find myself more and more irritated by the ideas and habits of younger people. But to my surprise, I’m also discovering how much I have to learn from them.
I teach English at a Christian liberal arts college in the Northwest, so I spend most of my time with 18 to 22-year-olds. At the end of every semester, I give a spiel in which I praise students for their hard work and thank them for being my teachers. I almost always mean it. Many of the texts I teach are as familiar to me as the chairs in my house, but my students often see things I haven’t seen before, and I’m grateful for their insights.
Outside of the classroom, however, I have a harder time listening with both ears to young people. I like millennials. I’m friends with them. I’m related to them. But sometimes I have to roll my eyes at them. I sit close enough to them in coffee shops to hear them listing all of the adulting they have to do. I sigh as they fret about choosing just the right barn and food trucks for their weddings. And then there’s the way millennials love to identify themselves as millennials. Like when a colleague (someone I quite like and respect, by the way) piped up in a group discussion by labeling herself “as the only millennial in the room.” I thought unhelpful things like, “Way to isolate yourself, girlfriend.”
On the upside, millennials own one of my new favorite coffee shops in town, where the starting pay is $15 per hour and microloans to coffee growers are written into their business plan. The millennials I talk to are wary of living in an echo chamber of self-selected media. They’re frugal, industrious, and doing a lot of good work in the church and beyond.
Why do I tune out, then, when someone offers a good suggestion, just because the person making the suggestion doesn’t need under-eye concealer in the desperate way that I do? Am I envious of millennials’ energy and optimism, their strong sense of generational identity, their hipster tendencies, their flower crowns, mason jars, and small-batch everything? And isn’t this just another version of railing at “kids these days,” itself one of the most tiresome, unhelpful, and predictable sentiments?
I suspect that this, like most of my problems, has to do with my own precious ego. I’m old enough now that it’s hard to remember when I resented the wisdom—or, rather, the “wisdom”—of my elders. As I saw it then, people in charge made rules to fit what their own youth had been like. They longed for the freedom of some irrecoverable past. I was not a rebellious kid, but I knew I wanted to live in a different way, so I drowned out their helpful suggestions with Christian rap on my Walkman.
These years later, I’m old enough to know that part of the project of adulthood is to sort through the stuff you absorbed as a young person, and that what you treasure later isn’t always what you thought was important at the time. I think of Don, my youth pastor, who must have been in his 50s when I was in high school. He was very serious about the injunction in 1 Timothy 4: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers.” (I had a very King James childhood and can’t hear that verse in any other way.) “You aren’t the church of tomorrow,” he would say. “You’re the church of today.”
A few times a year, Don organized Youth Sunday at our church and the youth ran the entire service, from the music to the ushering to the preaching. As a teenager, I didn’t understand the risks Don was taking with this learn-by-doing approach and what great faith he must have had to stake his ministry reputation on a group of earnest, mercurial teenagers. He valued us as full members of the body of Christ. He knew that wisdom and age don’t always travel in tandem. He taught us to respect our elders, and he also made sure that our elders heard us in our own words.
“The first duty of love is to listen,” wrote theologian Paul Tillich. When my spouse’s grandmother turned 100 last year, we asked her so many questions and listened for hours. What was it like to ride a horse to school? What happened when you pushed your wedding date back because of the grain harvest? What would you change about your life, and what would you do over again?
At this point, my teachers are going to get younger and younger. And if I’m not listening, I’m missing out. When I’m quick to roll my eyes at a millennial’s enthusiasm, I would do well to check myself. I have plenty of questions for my millennial friends, too. What was it like to have Facebook in middle school, and how did you not lose your mind? What are your ideas for fixing our broken world, and how can my generation help you?
I want my daughter—whose generation has yet to be named—to respect her teachers, all of her teachers. She’ll have plenty to learn from her peers and those who come after her. But listening, really listening to others, no matter their age or their feelings about kombucha? That’s a lesson I want her to learn from me.
Nicole Sheets is an associate professor of English at Whitworth University and the editor of How To Pack for Church Camp, an online anthology of nonfiction about summer camp. Her work has appeared in Image, Mid-American Review, Western Humanities Review, Hotel Amerika, and Geez magazine. You can find her on Twitter @heynicolesheets and in Spokane, Washington, where she lives with her family.
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