I’ve always cared more about the characters in a story than the plot itself — how their personalities unfold, why they do what they do, when and where their relationships develop — and one of my favorite duos of all time is Ruth and Naomi from the Hebrew Bible.
Tragedy befalls Naomi when her husband and sons die in quick succession, and, with the best interests of her now-widowed daughters-in-law in mind, she urges them to go back to their homelands. One daughter, Ruth, refuses, saying, “Don’t tell me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go and where you stay I will stay.”
Not only does Ruth and Naomi’s relationship challenge the narrative of fraught mother/daughter-in-law relationships and paint a picture of abiding loyalty and devotion, it also tenderly depicts the fruitfulness of intergenerational friendship. With the deaths of Naomi’s son and Ruth’s husband, the women lose their conventional connection, but they remain committed to caring for one another. The unlikely friendship sustains both women. It reminds me to think outside the box when cultivating relationships.
Here are three ways that we can broaden our relational horizons to create and deepen intergenerational bonds.
Strike up conversations with people outside your age bracket
When I attend events, I tend to gravitate towards people I already know or who seem to be in the same phase of life as me, mainly because it’s so easy. I know the questions to ask, the conversations to initiate, and how to quickly find common ground. But the reasons why striking up intergenerational conversations can be challenging are also what make them rich; I learn new things and am introduced to fresh perspectives. For me, this step is all about the decision: opting to sit down at the table of teens at my parish’s coffee hour, or choosing the seat next to the octogenarian at my library’s book group. Once I’m there, all I have to do is ask, “what’s up?”
For an example, I became friends with a woman several decades older than me when we attended the same inaugural meeting of a book group at our church. Her comments during the discussion resonated with me and we struck up a conversation afterwards that hasn’t stopped. We regularly talk about everything from books and poetry to family and travel, and she is a treasure chest of wisdom for me on parenting, vocational decisions and dealing with the (sometimes tough) stuff that life hands us.
Get creative with how you spend your time
In my current circumstances, I find myself spending a lot of time in age-homogenous places: If I’m not at the playground or library storytime with fellow new parents, I’m hanging out with my 20- and 30-something friends and neighbors. I have noticed through working at a parish, however, that church is a great place to cross generational boundaries. I see empty-nesters volunteering to chaperone the Confirmation retreat, and young professionals offering rides to our faith community’s elderly parishioners. Spending time with people in these various contexts makes space for story sharing, question asking, and deep listening across generations.
Read intergenerational literature
If your life situation at the moment doesn’t leave room for cultivating new friendships, an activity as simple as reading can allow you to benefit from wisdom across generations. Try picking up a spiritual classic by one of the Church’s mothers or fathers, like St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” or St. Teresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle,” or read a book in which intergenerational friendship is a prominent theme.
I recently contributed to a collection in which nine other millennial women and I write and receive letters from world-renowned spiritual writer Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB. The book, “Dear Joan Chittister: Conversations with Women in the Church,” invites readers to learn from the vulnerable sharing between a wisdom figure and a group of up-and-coming theologians. We developed the book after spending two weeks with Sr. Joan and members of her Benedictine community in Erie, PA, immersed in wonderful intergenerational conversations over lunch and afternoon chats. In demonstrating a unique model of dialogue, it may inspire you to seek the intergenerational sharing of wisdom through letter writing — maybe to a homebound acquaintance or a student away at college, depending on your age!
Intergenerational friendships, which allow us to learn from people who have experienced more of life than us, and others who are seeing the world with fresh eyes, make life richer for all parties involved. Taking time to engage in activities, practices and conversations that promote the sharing of wisdom across ages benefits our individual lives, our communities and our world.
Originally published December 16, 2019