Every day we bump against other worlds we barely understand and sometimes fail to notice. There are the obvious things that divide us as people — gender, age, ethnicity, upbringing, ideology and the many other factors that frame individual lives. One with which we all have first-hand experience is the gap between generations.
For example, I am the youngest child of a youngest child. My father, past middle age when I was born, grew up in a strikingly different world, shaped by war, sacrifice and stern frugality. The son of parents who came of age in the late 19th century, Dad had one foot in a world where need and want, duty and entitlement, opportunity and gender roles were all strictly defined. As I grew up, we struggled mightily to understand each other.
Later, when I had children of my own, I was determined to do it differently, only to discover that the borders surrounding childhood, adolescence and adult life are surprisingly universal. My children and I lived in parallel worlds, intersecting out of necessity and love, but largely clueless about each other’s experience. Now, as adults, when they talk about the things they did, what happened to them and how they felt, I am torn between peeking into that world and just holding on to my own vision of that reality. (I feel certain that there are at least a few things we don’t need to know about each other.)
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus encourages Scout to climb inside the other person’s skin and walk around in it. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” That’s a neat trick. Much easier said than done, but, as it turns out, critically important to a successful, rewarding life.
With the benefit of time and experience, I eventually was able to see things from my parents’ perspective and understand what I derived from the intersection of our frustratingly different worlds. More given to demonstrating rather than describing what he’d learned from life, Dad nevertheless tried to explain the difference between his childhood and mine. “Kids grew up hard in those days,” he said. “You just don’t realize how lucky you are.” I do now.
My parents’ lifelong habits of frugality, kindness, citizenship and faith have informed my life and sustained me through my own hard times. And, while my children and I are still working on understanding each other, I am comforted by the thought that they are connected across generations and wildly different worlds by this precious common thread.
Next year, as Saint Mary’s celebrates its sesquicentennial — 150 years since its founding in 1863 — we will focus particularly on the generations of Gaels who began their adult lives learning at this college. Just as my grandfather, who was born not long after Saint Mary’s was established, would barely recognize the world in which my children and I live today, those first Gaels would be stunned by the lives of their 2012 counterparts.
As we dig deeper into the history of Saint Mary’s in preparation for the upcoming anniversary, it’s not only interesting to contemplate how much things have changed over 150 years, but also entirely satisfying to discover the common threads that unite generations of Gaels. Among them are the fruits of an exceptional education — the ability to overcome the differences that separate us as people, see things through someone else’s eyes, and intersect wisely with the many different worlds around us.