by MJ Ali
When I was 19 and attending school in Boston, I would do a lot of waiting for the T, the city’s rail-based public transportation. One morning, a light-footed woman in jeans and black Converse shoes swung her book-heavy backpack down between her feet as she plunked onto the bench next to me, and we immediately struck up a conversation.
She was graduating with her Bachelors and had already been accepted into a Masters program that fall. The excitement on her face said it all. She couldn’t wait to start graduate school. We talked about classes we’d had in common at our respective schools, sharing our experiences with—and criticisms of—traditional education. I didn’t even notice that we’d boarded, sat down, and were nearing my stop; we could have talked for hours.
So, why is this story at all remarkable? She was 80. There was a sixty-one-year age gap that, to us, was completely irrelevant. If we’d seen each others’ ages first, or allowed that difference to limit our communication, neither of us would have had the opportunity to discover our common ground, to enjoy an interaction that, at its very least, made a tedious trip effortless. It was much more than that, though; it shaped the way I’ve regarded age for my entire adult life.
My mother didn’t have any use for ageism either. Her friends ranged in age from twenties to eighties and I never really saw her make a distinction. Her behavior and outlook reinforced my own feelings and thoughts about the self-limiting precepts of age-assigned behavior and outlook.
Our life experiences may have different generational venues (analog versus digital, for instance), but the experiences themselves are relatable. In fact, some haven’t changed at all. Learning how to swim, first kisses, falling in love, heartbreak, first jobs, insecurity, accomplishments—all have a core commonality regardless of the decade in which they occurred.
Younger people often feel their opinions and input aren’t taken seriously because they haven’t been on the planet long enough and lack experience. Older people tend to feel as though they’re viewed as incompetent, and experience being treated like they’re superfluous by younger people, often feeling as though they’re invisible.
Our preconceptions create this barrier to communication, and we miss out on so much because of it. Imagine interacting with someone much younger or older and choosing not to put their age first, but allowing that interaction to unfold organically, without prejudgment. That’s freedom, for both parties. That’s exercising our inherent ability to adapt, to choose a flexible mind over a rigid one.
Try it sometime. Let us know how it goes.