I am on a zoom writing session right now with two friends from my MFA program: one is a stylish, active grandmother who is decades older than me, the other is several years older than me with two grown children. Shortly before, a friend who is in her mid 20s texted me with career woes. And last night, I had dinner with friends who are the same age. Later today, I will drop off some food for a friend who is in her 80s. What does this tell me? That it is important to have friends across all age groups.
Our modern society is very compartmentalized and very individualistic. It can be very isolating, and utterly ignorant of those with different views, especially based on their age. We also have a lack of historicity in American society: people only know what people of their age group and generation believe in. I believe cancel culture relates to this, as well as the right-wing ideologies against teaching race, gender, etc. that are so pervasive now. When we don’t understand how ideas and values change over time, we are in danger. If a well-meaning older man in a shop says to a woman “Good morning, miss,” it might be because his mother told him never to address a woman directly by first name, and to be a gentleman. If a young person says that their ethnic group is targeted by the police at statistically proven rates, it is necessary to take them seriously, even if you are not personally racist. We really need to understand where people are coming from, and what the morés of the time in which they grew up were. If they are outdated and discriminatory, we need to question that and not continue the pattern. Both the right and left have a responsibility to understand history.
When it comes to books, as a writer I am naturally in support of reading everything. If there are racist or colonial themes, then read books and discuss them, understanding the context in which the book was written–the history, the culture, the economics, the views on race, religion, etc. etc. Don’t ban a work of literature that is otherwise magnificent just because there are painful things. We can learn from pain; in fact, we MUST learn from pain, because that is the only way not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Put those books from the past in dialogue with modern works. Ask questions about the author and try to understand if that author was perhaps progressive for their time, even though those views may not be acceptable now. Don’t cancel a writer event just because they said one thing that you disagree with, or that you in particular happen to find offensive, assuming that the author had malicious intent. Ask yourself what your own biases are, too. Alice Walker herself said (at a talk I attended) to read books from opposing points of view, books written by the enemy.
All cultural politics aside, there is something beautiful about cross-generational friendships and what we can learn about history and life from them. The octogenarian friend mentioned above grew up in the golden age of Hollywood, and I revel in hearing her stories about various cultural figures in classical music as well as in film. I seek life and home advice from a friend close in age who happened to become a mother and married very young. I talk about men and relationships and recipes with a friend who is a decade older than me. And the millennial mentioned above has much in common with me when I was the same age, trying to figure out what I wanted to do after college while working at a job I didn’t love, discovering opera, facing the challenges of learning how to sing, and marveling in the appeal of New York City. I love answering her questions, from the profound to mundane (dishwasher woes!), as she feels comfortable turning to me for guidance. We are all part of a chain as humans, with one hand reaching up for wisdom from others, and one hand reaching down to impart wisdom to others. In sum, we need each other, and the more we cross age divides, the richer our lives will be.