When I first began this essay about grandchildren, I couldn’t lay to rest my deep anguish about the conflict-ridden and vulnerable planet we are leaving to our younger generation. So I decided to talk with some of my own grandchildren about their perspectives on the state of our world and their hopes for the future. Most important, is there a way we might help each other through these challenging times?
Distrust, name-calling, and narrow self-interests are infecting the very fabric of our national discourse. This mean-spiritedness is playing out in our families and our schools as well as the political arena. We seem to be at war with each other, and increasingly with the rest of the world. What can we do to heal these rifts?
I asked my 19-year-old grandson Vidal about the messy world he is inheriting. “I don’t look at my generation as being ‘screwed’ but more that we’re going to be presented with new challenges that the previous generation hasn’t had to deal with,” he said. “We’re just going to have to figure out how to navigate this environment and this country that’s always changing.”
As a product of the 1960s college scene, I remember the “can-do” mentality that kindled our faith and energized our activism. Vidal, who had just finished his first year in college, reminded me, “This isn’t the first time we’ve had a super-divided country. And it’s not the first time we’ve dealt with a wild, erratic president. It’s not the first time we’ve had costly wars. This is just what happens when you have a country with 300 million people in it. And global responsibilities. There are always going to be problems. And the pendulum always swings.” That last thought of his was what I most needed to balance my own doomsday fears.
My thoughts continue circling back to the inspiring March for our Lives rallies that began last spring following the Parkland, FL, shootings. The students’ activism continues to ignite individuals into collective actions. We know that gunning down our nation’s children is an intolerable reality—and something we must all be involved in stopping.
These public events are a beautiful example of older people showing up and supporting the activism of the younger generation. Our support can help end to the gun violence that has wreaked fear, havoc, and death on the streets of our nation’s cities and in so many sanctuaries of education. But what inspired me the most from the March event in Washington, DC, was something that went viral through social media: A lone student courageously led hundreds of thousands of people through more than six minutes of silence—respectfully, tearfully, and meaningfully. As I witnessed that space of sacred remembering, my heart broke open with compassion and love.
Perhaps silence and space to feel are among the necessary antidotes to the many disheartening concerns peppering our media and fueling our sense of being overwhelmed. What a lesson for us all—to take the space we need to sense not only the pain of sadness and loss, but also the truth of our interconnectedness.
In these experiences, we manage to bridge the differences in age, race, gender, ethnicity, education, privilege, and culture that mark who we are as Americans. Together, we are a mass of humanity who care, led by the youth whose futures hang in the balance. They have so much to teach us and we have so much to share with them. It’s that very intersection of our interests, while acknowledging and embracing our differences, that has the power to change our world.
In fact, Vidal told me about the “intersectionality” group that he participates in at college, where people across many divides come together regularly to talk about hot topics relevant on campus. Even there, he’s witnessed some intolerance and dismissal of perspectives that diverge from the majority opinion. Although he said he has a liberal leaning on most things, he thinks it’s important to listen to people from across all viewpoints. “I may not agree with them,” he said, “but I see where they’re coming from.”
To me, that is wisdom for the ages. In the words of Gene Knudsen Hoffman, a Quaker peace worker who pioneered Compassionate Listening as a tool for reconciliation in the 1980s, “no one side is the sole repository of truth. But each of us has a spark of it within. Perhaps, with compassion as our guide, that spark in each of us can become a glow, and then perhaps a light, and we will watch one another in awe as we become illuminated. And then, perhaps, this spark, this glow, this light will become the enlightening energy of love that will save all of us.”
When I asked my grandson if he felt at all hopeful about the future, he responded, “It’s the only way I can feel.” After talking with him, I feel that it is more true for me as well.
Andrea Cohen facilitates Compassionate Listening workshops locally and internationally, and integrates Compassionate Listening fundamentals into dialogue events, the workplace, and communities in conflict. Andrea is the author of Practicing the Art of Compassionate Listening, a practical guidebook that helps people utilize compassionate listening skills in the heat of daily life challenges.