We overhear you in the coffee shops. As members of our families, we listen to you tell us what you’re learning in college. We employ you at our businesses. We read your passionate posts on Facebook. And we shake our heads in disbelief when reading about some of you in the newspaper.
Lest you think this letter is another nostalgic rant from an old-timer about a generation gap, it’s not. There are are wonderful discussions to be had about what it was and is to be 20-something in different decades. Chalk boards vs. Smart boards. Rotary dial phones vs. Cell phones. Typewriters vs. Instant messaging.
Nor is it about “older is better”. Growing older doesn’t automatically make one smarter. There is such a creature as an old fool. The Apostle Paul told Timothy, “Don’t let anyone despise your youth.” In God’s sovereignty, we are the age we are at this point in history. Our age is never our fault.
All any of us know is our experience. In that light, we Baby Boomers can appreciate the opportunities of you Gen-X’ers and Millenials in a way you can’t. For example, all you’ve known is life with digital music. We know what it’s like to jimmy the matchbook just right to make our Pink Floyd 8-Track work. When you’ve experienced the latter, you have a deeper appreciation for the former.
This is about something we have that you don’t yet have. It’s something you’ll have one day that your kids won’t yet have.
It’s called life experience.
For all of us, 20-something is the stage of life where our convictions run ahead of our life experience. We feel everything strongly. Idealism, a good trait, tends to draw sharp lines around what we believe to be right and wrong. The lines around the way we think things ought to be are particularly bold.
Idealism is good. Idealism without life experience is naive. It’s not your fault. All of us older than you have been there, too. Which is why you might want to listen to what we’ve learned.
Very few of us smoothly travel the distance from idealistic college graduate to gold watch retiree without experiencing tragedy. To be sure, those that do are sitting on the furthest fortunate edge of the bell curve.
For the rest of us, which is to say the most of us, there will come a time, multiple times, when life kicks us in the teeth, grabs our shirt, slams us up against the wall and sneeringly asks, “Whaddya got?”
It may be a beloved career that is taken away. Maybe a family relationship that becomes irreparably estranged. It may be an ultrasound that shows no heartbeat. It might be watching your sweet toddler’s hair fall out in chunks during chemotherapy. It may be the moment you check your bank account and realize your trusted business partner is on his way to Argentina with every dime of your investment. Or it may be the devastation you experience when your spouse changes their “I do” to “I don’t”.
Think these could never happen? Trust me, they’ve happened to worse and better people than you.
However the moment presents itself, you’ll be kicked in the teeth, grabbed by the shirt, slammed up against the wall and asked, “Whaddya got?” In that moment, all your convictions, all your idealism and all your beliefs about how the world should be will be forced through a new filter. Your college textbook theories will be of no comfort.
Because life, real life, rarely goes by the book.
When you are knocked breathless and up against the wall, you will be forced to ask yourself, “Do I really believe what I think I believe?” Put another way, there comes a point in all our lives where we have to own our theology. Do we really believe what we say we believe about God?
Hard times will find the holes in your theology faster than a mongoose on a cobra. There’s no way to avoid the hard times. We live in a fallen world. There is a way, however, to press through and make the most of them.
It’s been said that “smart people learn from experience, wise people learn from the experience of others.” May I be direct? What you and your fellow 20-somethings need to understand is that if you set aside what you think you know long enough to listen to those of us who have been there, you have a shot at skipping smart and going straight to wise.
Are we more intelligent than you? No. You have the benefit of being born into a world of knowledge, much of which was not yet known when we were your age. The pace of discovery is an ever faster spinning wheel. You have tools and access to data we never had. We had libraries. You have a world wide search engine. You know what you read on the internet. You’re able to pull articles and proof texts about past history with the best of them.
That’s good. But it’s not enough. Because much of what you read about, we lived through.
You can read books and blogs about Woodstock, the Civil Rights movement, the Iran Hostage Crisis and the poor quality of General Motors cars in the 1970’s. You can write a fine report. Yet all you know are words on a page. That history is completely different when you were the one sitting half-naked in the mud listening to Jimi Hendrix, living in the Deep South in the days of segregation, experienced the national frustration of Carter’s impotent foreign policy and had the misfortune of owning a Chevy Vega.
You are well-read. You are not yet well-lived. That takes time. God willing, time is on your side.
When, God-willing, you get to be our age…do you want to be smart? Or do you want to be wise?
What you will be then is largely determined by your level of teachability now.
The world has enough educated derelicts. We have plenty of people walking around with more degrees than a thermometer yet lack the common sense to come in out of the rain. What we need are people of all ages not too proud to learn. It’s amazing how much wisdom all of us gain when we put our pride in our pocket and stop thinking we know everything.
Because as a 20-something, you don’t. You haven’t lived long enough.
Your age is not your fault. However, it will be your fault if you insist on being smart instead of wise. Because the wisdom, the life experience of those of us older is here for you. All you have to do is ask and listen. We aren’t perfect. We don’t have all the answers. Yet we have experiences you don’t. Experiences you can learn from. You’re smart enough to sort it all out, to process and discern what’s true and what isn’t. It means being teachable. None of us reach our potential when we think we know everything.
Among the most freeing words we can ever utter are, “I don’t know anything about that. Can you teach me?”
We’re all in this together. Some of us are just further down the road. We’re willing to tell you what we’ve seen and what we know. Including our mistakes, the bad roads we took and the turns we wish we would have made.
You’d be wise to ask, listen and learn.
Or you can just stay smart.
“Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?”
– Job 12:12
“He who gets wisdom, loves his own soul; he who keeps understanding will find good.”
– Proverbs 19:8
Todd A. Thompson – toddthompson.net