Across Generations

 “When an Elder dies, a library burns to the ground.” African Proverb

What can we do to heal the generational divide?

More and more conversations are happening today around the rights of future generations, particularly in relation to the changing climate, and what it means to be a good ancestor

But being able to see ourselves in relation to people we never knew and will never know, and choosing a course of action based on this, requires tremendous wisdom that most of us can only dream of one day reaching. We can, however, begin repairing the fragmentation between generations alive today. 

This is not an easy feat, in particular in Western societies, which tend to organise people into age groups, from kindergarten all the way through to care homes. Somehow we have bought into the idea that children should be with children of their own age, adults should mostly socialise with their peers and old people are sent away to care homes with other old people. Youth is fetishised and ageing is seen as something that needs to be prevented, or at least, hidden away. 

Audre Lorde once warned that “the ‘generation gap’ was an important social tool for any repressive society. If the younger members of a community view the older members as contemptible or suspect or excess, they will never be able to join hands and examine the living memories of the community, nor ask the all-important question, ‘Why?’” This leads to historical amnesia in which we are condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over. 

But beyond that, we are all suffering from great losses. It is through the stories of ancestors that we can delve into big questions about our human condition. And it is through these stories told by our ancestors, and those imagined by children, that we can travel across time, backwards and forwards, and open our minds to different perspectives. It is often said that this is why small children and old people develop very special bonds.

Our work in the human rights field is also fragmented around age. This is partly because we rarely have the luxury or clarity of seeing the bigger picture. So we seek tangible and measurable short term gains for specific issues affecting a specific group, even though a growing number of us understand that any impact that does not extend beyond that fragmented group will be, at best, short lived. And this, in turn, is often a consequence of funding, which, in the words of Arundhati Roy “has fragmented solidarity in ways that repression never could.” 

The generational divide is becoming increasingly noticeable on a planet that will only sustain human life if we all come together. Younger people today, understandably, blame older generations for causing climate catastrophe. While accountability is of course essential, what is also urgently needed among all of us is a better understanding of how the work of young people today builds on the work done by their predecessors. 

We wouldn’t have the knowledge and tools at our disposal if it wasn’t for the work of those who came before us. Once again, we can learn from Indigenous cultures whose value structure is based on the understanding that we are all connected, interrelated and interdependent, including across generations.

Indigenous Lawyer and Activist, Sherri Mitchell writes about the loss of wisdom from elders that many young people are facing and how “elders are the guardians of our cultural knowledge. They also hold the structure of that knowledge and determine the form of transmission that is needed to pass that knowledge along.”

There are growing initiatives around the world that aim to heal this fragmentation. Vincent Harding, who helped Martin Luther King Jr. develop his theory of nonviolence, spent the later years of his life finding creative ways of bringing young people into contact with elders and civil rights veterans - not as figures in history books but as “‘living and lively and magnificent.”

An organisation in Germany called Zweizeugen, meaning ‘second witness’ brings children into contact with some of the few remaining survivors of the Holocaust to listen to their personal life stories and bear witness. This in turn encourages them to develop tools to take action against racism today.

Witnessing the “cascade of problems — from ageism to loneliness to splintered movements for social change” that segregating younger people from older people has resulted, Encore, in the United States brings together activists from different generations to “solve critical problems and bridge divides, creating a society that works for all generations.”

While we may not have the luxury of time before us to reorganise society in a cross-generational manner, from education to care and everything in between, we could ask ourselves how we can, in our work, think cross-generationally: What is our role? How can we heal this divide? 

In the words of Thomas Berry, “perhaps the most valuable heritage we can provide for future generations is some sense of the Great Work that is before them of moving the human project from its devastating exploitation to a benign presence. We need to give them some indication of how the next generation can fulfill this work in an effective manner.” 

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration Miriam Sugranyes

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