No Regrets, Let's Clean Up the Mess Together

07/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Wall Street Journal last week had an article on the new theme of the annual commencement speech celebrity sweepstakes: "We are really, really sorry." On campus after campus, speakers of the Boomer generation were apologizing to the twenty-something generation (I don't remember the nomenclature for this batch of graduates) for the self-centered and often greedy abuses of the "me" generation. This old theme had the ring of a "mea culpa" without showing much of an agenda for doing much about anything--coming across more like a challenge to the young to not make our mistakes.

Some of the youthful attendees rightfully asked, "Why don't you clean up the mess you made?" I vaguely recall saying that to my own children not so long ago. One of the themes of the Eldering Institute and my Serene Ambition blog is that we should "clean up the mess before we die"--whether we made the mess or not.

I am not a fan of the blame game. In fact, I think doing Monday morning autopsies of the world's intractable problems is not only unproductive, but it also distracts us from focusing on creating real solutions and breakthroughs. While we can "own" the fact that many (if not most) of the social, economic and environmental breakdowns have appeared on our watch, they are far too complex to lay at the feet of a single generation of Americans. We could just as easily focus on the positive change that has appeared in this same time frame: from civil rights, the personal computer and the Internet to unprecedented global awareness and cooperation to address age-old plagues of poverty, ignorance and, more recently, corruption and religious intolerance. Whether we are winning these wars is another question, but it is the "Boomers" who have been leading the charge.

If someone invited me to speak, the commencement speech I would make would go something like this:

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I am addressing you as ladies and gentlemen because you have emerged from the chrysalis of youth into the full bloom of adulthood. You are no longer boys and girls or "young people"--although you are certainly younger than me. You are an adult in every sense of the word. You can never be any more "adult" than you are today.

I am going to spare you the usual inspirational "challenges" expected on these occasions. You probably know them better than I do. I am also going to forgo any pretense that I, or people of my generation, have any idea of what is in store for you. Whatever value our experience and perspective may have, it is not in predicting what will happen in a world that is changing faster than we can think about, disseminate and digest. Our traditional models for anticipating and predicting the future are no longer adequate as a basis for decision-making and planning. Uncertainty is now a constant and will probably continue to be a fact-of-life for the rest of our lives.

What I propose is an idea I call "Eldering." Now why would I want to speak with a group of people just finishing their formal undergraduate education about something that sounds like a topic for "old" people? My notion of "Eldering" isn't just for people who are "old." It is for young people as well. Eldering, as I see it, is about multigenerational dialogue and collaboration to create our common future -- a future that is sane, that works for all of us, and that leaves the world in better shape than we found it.

So why use an unfamiliar word like Eldering?

First of all, familiar words can often be misunderstood and your generation and my generation don't see things the same way. Your "world" is literally a very different "world" than mine. What is obvious to you is not so obvious to me ... and what is obvious to me is not so obvious to you. Human beings always relate to and interact with the world that occurs for them (not some independently verifiable objective "reality"). Our worlds are 'disclosed' to us by a variety of factors, including our culture, our traditions, our education, our practices, the times in which we live, and so on. The technical term for this difference in how the world occurs for each of us is "disclosive space." An accountant lives in a different disclosive space than an engineer. People from an Hispanic culture live in a different disclosive space than people from a British culture. I suggest that your generation and my generation live in radically different disclosive spaces.

A second reason for using the unfamiliar term of Eldering is that I don't want to talk about the relationship between our generations like two ends of a spectrum--with "elders" at one end and "youth" at the other. I want to emphasize that whatever wisdom each of us brings to this relationship is only valuable if we are able to use it in action. In fact, my definition of Eldering IS "wisdom in action!" I challenge you to leave behind your common sense notions about what is possible when we work together to solve intractable problems and create unprecedented futures.

We human beings often behave and act in ways that are not necessarily consistent with what we think, what we want, or what we know is in our own best interests. Many of our actions are knowingly self-destructive -- and we keep repeating them expecting different results. What possible explanation can we have for this seeming insanity?

One explanation is that we aren't always in charge of our own actions. Often we are just "doing something" for no clear reason, even though our behavior seems irrational (and even a bit "crazy"). So if we aren't in control of our own actions and behavior, then why are we doing what we do?

I think the answer lies in our "disclosive space." The possibilities available to us, our choices, and our actions all correlate to how the world occurs for us (not to the "way it is"). Let me clarify. When something appears to be a threat, you will act in the same way you behave when facing that kind of threat -- always. It doesn't mean we all respond the same way to that particular danger. Depending upon the context in which the threat occurs and each person's commitments and competencies, individuals may see it an opportunity for positive action or as something to run away from or to become resigned about. For example, when I look at the responses of people like President Obama and Van Jones to the recession, I am encouraged to see that their "disclosive space" -- their worldview -- includes a shift in our economy to green jobs.

The worldviews of our two generations are both equally valid. They are simply our assessments of "the way it is" and what is and is not possible. Neither of our assessments are "the truth." And neither are "false."

Understanding this doesn't make understanding each other's perspective any easier. I have experience and perspective that you don't have, just as you have experience and perspective that I don't have. I may never understand the appeal in having tattoos or spending large amounts of time in virtual space. You may never understand the kind of "faith" many of my peers have in public institutions. If we are going to work together, we need to be able to accept and appreciate each other's viewpoint. More importantly, we need to appreciate and value that they are just different--not better--and that we don't have to agree or even understand each other on every point.

The objective of Eldering (or any dialogue for that matter) is not to win an argument or pound our differences into some kind of 'sameness'. We are always both 'right' from our respective points of view. And we need our different views to create anything new. Innovation happens at the intersection of at least two different disclosive spaces. When different worldviews come together, they can give rise to something that has never existed before. Without that intersection, we wouldn't have Cirque de Soleil's combination of circus and theater, bioengineering's mashup of biology and technology, YouTube's consumer video on the Internet. We wouldn't even have American democracy (the heart of which is the intersection of the Magna Carta and the American Revolution).

Let's transform our conventional wisdom about age as something that segments and divides us socially, politically, economically and spiritually. Let's create a shared disclosive space that can restore our sense of community, unite us in a common vision, and open up the possibility of creating a future together at the intersection of "older" and "younger"--a future that works for all of us and for many generations to come.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.