As retirement drew near, strange images came to mind. In one, I pictured all the knowledge I had accumulated in a long life drifting skyward, growing indistinct and formless, then disappearing. In another, all that I knew seemed to be dissipating and returning to the earth—some uninvited play on life as dust to dust. The biblical allusion didn’t calm me. I shared the imagery with Franny and wondered: “I’ve learned so much over my lifetime. Will it simply die with me? Isn’t there a way to pass it on? Will anyone want it?”
The problem is that the market for wisdom has been declining for centuries. Once the world seemed stable. It didn’t change every few years with each new technological advance. In traditional societies, if you were alert and thoughtful, the longer you lived, the more you knew and, more importantly, the more you understood. The currency in old age rose instead of falling. For younger generations to succeed, old men and women had to share their accumulated wisdom. Young and old benefited.
Erik Erikson extended the idea of human development beyond childhood. For each developmental stage, he claimed that there was a challenge that we needed to meet in order to be strong and healthy. The penultimate stage he called “generativity vs. stagnation” (40-60). To move firmly through that stage—let’s call it the launching pad for old age—adults need to turn from self-concern and self-indulgence towards the concern, care, and nurturance of the next generation.
The primary challenge Erikson identified for life’s last stage (65-death) is “ego integrity vs. despair”. To succeed at the end of life, he claimed, we need to accept life more or less as it is, to review our accomplishments and failures, and to come to the conclusion that we have lived our life reasonably well.
I think that Erikson sold these last years short, as something of a lengthy dénouement in which productivity stopped and reflection was all that remained. That doesn’t reflect the people I know. It’s true that most of us have done an accounting. It’s also true that, for most of us, the urgency to produce income, ideas, and concrete products has waned. But our energy persists, as does our desire to contribute towards the lives of others. Erikson’s challenge for the stage preceding old age—turning our attention to the next generation—works as well, if not better, for old people.
For many this takes the form of taking care of grandchildren and volunteer work in nonprofit organizations, participating on boards of directors, assisting with administrative tasks, and mentoring the children served by the nonprofits. All very valuable contributions. For most of us, though, I think that mentoring represents our greatest and often untapped opportunity.
While youth do not automatically revere age in our society, my own experience tells me that they do value what we have learned when applied appropriately and well. Most of us can’t advise on computer and iphone issues, for instance, as our children and grandchildren can attest. We would also be unwise to lay claims to universal wisdom—not if we want any but cult-seeking groupies to listen to us. Nor can we impose our cultural premises onto the next generation as those in traditional societies could. If we try, young people won’t and shouldn’t listen to us.
What we can draw on is a great deal of lived experience which, if we are reflective, provides the possibility of wisdom comparable to the elders in traditional societies. We have formed and nurtured families, organizations, and communities and we have learned a great deal along the way. We have learned by our successes and by our failures. We have learned from our fears and from our boldness. We have learned by falling on our faces and getting up again. We have learned by our reluctance and by our impetuousness. Every one of us has lived a life in which we had to solve problems, endure hardships, and learn to affirm life as it is.
We have learned, that is, if we have consistently reflected on our experience—and if we continue to reflect on what is true and what still seems relevant.
Since many, if not most of us, have not had the opportunity to be well mentored or to observe mentors in action, there will be skills to learn. Describing those skills is beyond the scope of this essay, but let me offer just a little advice.
Mentoring is generally best as part of a relationship. There has to be a good fit between mentor and mentee, a mentor’s desire to help and teach and a mentee’s wish to benefit. Much of what we offer begins and ends with respectful listening, which is the best way to get to know one another and to build trust.
Most of what we say is best shared through stories. Unless they are requested—teach me how to write a budget, a plan, how to get along with my fellow workers—didactic lessons tend to feel like impositions. They create distance, not intimacy. By teaching through stories, we encourage and affirm our mentees’ capacity to draw their own conclusions, to extrapolate in their own creative ways. The key is this: to allow our own wisdom to release and not constrain our mentees’ wisdom.
There is one more key: we have to be in proximity with young people.
Mostly we are not. We live in separate communities. We talk different languages. We don’t share stories. The generations have become balkanized. While older people resent the warehousing that separates us from family and community, we also contribute mightily by separating ourselves. We need to buck this tide.
I have had the privilege of mentoring many young people For years, I joined with young marital and family therapists. For many more, I have worked with organizational leaders. And throughout, there are moments when even my grown children have allowed me to offer a telling story or a bit of advice.
Mentoring is an activity I love. It provides me with the opportunity to know the younger generations, just a bit, and for them to know me. At some point in of every session, I feel that I have contributed something, that I have passed on a little bit of what I have learned. I have not let my life’s learning just dribble away. Mentoring is a way forward with dignity. For me, it has become a little piece of paradise, the closest I come to an afterlife.