What Do the Old Have to Say to the Young?

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We have endured another graduation season full of the usual forgettable commencement speeches. It amazes me, as it does each year, how powerful is the impulse for the old to give advice to the young. This tendency, of course, is also evident in the typical exchanges that pass for conversation between parents and children. It is as if we cannot adequately convey our experience of the world to succeeding generations without resorting to lectures and instructions, thus violating both the standard advice to writers ("Show, don't tell.") and the importance of another basic truth about human interactions: "Nobody likes to be told what to do."

Attempts I have read to obtain oral histories from elderly people facing the silence of the grave make interesting reading as long as people stick to the stories of their lives. The fatal moment for these conversations comes when the interviewer asks, "What would you like to say to those who follow you?" or "What have you learned in your long sojourn on the planet?" or, worse yet, "What is the secret of your success (as defined by accumulation of wealth, longevity, length of marriage, etc.)?" The old person is irresistibly drawn to tell us the moral of his or her story, which usually consists of a collection of lamentable clichés that drain whatever meaning we might have otherwise derived from the events they have described: "Do the work you love," "Never go to bed angry," "Embrace uncertainty," "Always look on the bright side," and on and on.

If there is one thing that psychotherapists learn (or should) it is that the process of change seldom involves one person, no matter how many diplomas she has on her wall, telling another how to live. (This, by the way, distinguishes TV therapists from the real thing.) Whatever we have to convey about what we have learned is expressed in what we have done and how we have interacted with our fellow man. If we have accumulated any thoughts or insights worth sharing, they surely must consist of something more than the tired platitudes with which the old typically bore the young.

In the realm of graduation-style chestnuts we have "Live each day as if it were your last," or, alternatively, "This is the first day of the rest of your life." I talked recently to students in an 12th grade English class at an exclusive private school. I chose the subject of clichés. This was a mistake because few of the students could even define the word or had the least idea of why one should avoid the use of overused constructions in written work. When I told them that "I avoid clichés like the plague," no one laughed. (I also stumped them by asking them to name a single living American author, suggesting, I suppose, that reading something not on an electronic screen is not a high priority for them.)

So why is it important that we recognize the emptiness of the stale and hackneyed thoughts and expressions that pass for the conventional wisdom? If we cannot speak to each other in thoughtful and original ways what hope is there that we will learn to sift through the firehose of information we are exposed to in ways that will actually increase our fund of knowledge? If our idea of meaningful communication is expressed by "r u ok?" can we expect new ideas to emerge that are worth contemplating or sharing with others?

More than ever these days the old and the young inhabit different worlds and appear to have little to say to each other. This is why it is so discouraging that on those occasions when those younger are forced to sit through a few minutes of talk by someone older that the time is wasted on advice that sounds like it came from a fortune cookie. Instead, how about a story about what it is to stumble through life trying to create a map that will keep us from getting totally lost? What worked and didn't work in your own life, and what does it look like now that death is less of an abstract concept than a visible reality? What is the basis for hope in a world where all our stories will have an unhappy ending?

And what is the inestimable value of an original thought, well-expressed?