When I was in middle school, I looked at elementary school kids with such disdain. They were so naive, so little, so unknowledgeable about the world. They knew nothing of curse words, nothing of sex, nothing of homework. Chumps, the lot of them.
Later, as a senior in college, my friends and I smiled patronizingly as we watched freshman swarm over the campus, wide-eyed and full of optimism. They were so tiny! They had no idea what awaited them—the parties, the exams, the freedom, the responsibility—but we knew.
Now, as a college graduate in the working world, I see college students talking about the difficulty of exams, the excitement for graduation, and the stress of overflowing schedules. I think to myself: How quaint. Just wait until they experience the challenges of finally being on their own in a new city.
I think that’s arrogant bullshit though, actually. It’s not that life doesn’t get harder or that I haven’t really experienced the next phase of life, it’s that I’m missing the point.
I always used to see life as a linear progression: from naivety to wisdom, from inexperience to experience, from brashness to responsibleness. These days I’m beginning to suspect that it’s actually just the swing of a pendulum.
It’s easy to criticize the deficiencies of youth, of course. By “youth,” I mean anyone younger than you. The brashness, the arrogance, the naivety, the inexperience—they’re all legitimate critiques. They’re obvious to us because we’ve already been there. What we're less likely to recognize, however, are the shortcomings we’ve adopted ourselves as we age: the cynicism, the fearfulness, the dismissiveness, the arrogance.
We’ve settled and called it maturity. We’ve played it safe and called it wisdom. We’ve traded in earnestness for indifference. We’ve exchanged naive optimism for unbridled cynicism. We’ve picked up new responsibilities, but we’ve also picked up new anxieties. We condescendingly (and ironically) laugh at the arrogance of the young, thinking, they think they know how life works, but they don’t have it figured out like we do.
Is it embarrassing to be young? It is so admirable to age? Is it admirable to expect people to let you down? Is it admirable to play it safe? Is it mature to sneer at the immature? Is it better to assume things won’t work out? Is that maturity?
This essay is directed to anyone who is older than someone—whether you’re sixteen or sixty—to say that we’re right. We are older than we were, wiser than we were, more thoughtful, more realistic, more mature. But we are also more jaded, more cynical, more fearful, more apathetic, more unimpressed, more cavalier. It’s easy to criticize the young, but wisdom seeks to learn from the other end of the pendulum, rather than criticize it. We are right. We know so much more than the young. But the young also know so much more than us.
I think we should always try to emulate the best on both sides. Choosing humility unlocks wisdom and maturity from the old, passion and hope from the young. Let’s not arrogantly claim that any stage of life from the nursery to the nursing home has a monopoly on how to live well, and instead try to learn from the other end of the pendulum.