Giving Advice to the Younger Generation
by Miriam Hendeles
As someone who’s written a book about being a grandmother, I’m often asked for advice to the younger generation. More recently I’ve joined an organisation, JWOW (Jewish Women of Wisdom), which is a group formed by women for women, to provide support and camaraderie for mid-life women.
The question of what I would tell the younger generation (mums still raising their kids) stumps me for a variety of reasons: one is that I don’t like to give unsolicited advice, and the other is that I believe the younger generation already know what they need to at their stage. The things I know, at my age, will come to them as well in due course. They are meant to go through the experiences, make their own mistakes and figure things out at the other end.
So, that being said, I really have zero advice of any worth for the younger generation. But at risk of offending Chani, the editor of Uplift, I need to come up with something. So here is my profound advice to the masses:
You’re normal. We’re normal. It’s all normal. Everyone goes through stuff. It passes.
That’s all? Yes, that’s really it. You see, when I write articles about my experiences, they’re just that. My experiences. Everyone has his or her own experiences and life circumstances. What worked for me may not—probably won’t—work for you. Okay, so you may be inspired by what happened to me and how I handled a situation, but that doesn’t mean you have to handle your situation the same way.
And even if I did give advice such as “You really should never raise your voice to your children. It’s very damaging” or “Make sure your toddlers don’t get too hungry before dinner time, because they’ll inevitably act out when they’re hungry or tired or have a dirty diaper”, I’d be talking to the wall. They already know that.
Or how about this one? “Enjoy your kids while they’re young; the time flies by so fast.” Puh-lease. Do I really think people aged between twenty and forty were born yesterday? They need my advice?
No, they do not.
So all I tell my younger friends and relatives is that they’re normal. I’ve been through it, we’ve all been through it, and we come out at the other end. This does not mean I lack empathy. In fact, by validating their pain and refusing to find pat solutions, I give them the strength to figure it out on their own.
Any difficulty the younger generation are going through is normal. Identify what the issue is and dive right in to resolve it. Things can be rough, and won’t always get resolved immediately, and that’s normal too. But the time does pass, and as someone wise once told me, “A bad four or five years doesn’t mean a bad life.”
There’s a Chazal that says, ‘The suffering of a group halves the suffering of the individual and provides comfort.’ Knowing others are suffering, or have gone through a similar situation, is so validating and reassuring.
There’s a trend lately for people to write articles responding to the self-imposed question, what would I tell my younger self? Those in their thirties write articles based on the question, what would I tell my teenage self? And if one is in his or her forties or older, they get asked the profoundest of queries, what do you wish someone told you when you were twenty-plus? These questions are followed by deep revelations in articles, such as “I’d spend more time with my kids”, “I’d realise that self-care is most important” and other such wisdoms that older folk fantasise about telling their younger selves.
The implication is that as we age, we grow increasingly wiser and just plain smarter. When we’re young and dumb, we lack certain knowledge about life, and as we get older, we figure things out through the hard knocks of life experience. And lo and behold, we are now in a position to offer to our old selves (hence, the younger masses who read the wisdom and hopefully learn from our mistakes, supposedly preventing their own mistakes) the stuff we wish we knew back then.
I see a fallacy in this thinking. I’d tell myself a lot of things. But would my younger self listen to my current self? I believe my younger self would just respond, “Oh be quiet! I know all that, but it doesn’t apply to my situation. I can’t do it. I’m not ready. Don’t tell me what to do …”
When we’re older, we like to look back and recall how little we knew back then and how far we’ve come. Not a bad thing. Kind of like checking off a to-do list compiled of the things we’ve accomplished in terms of character development and how far we still have to go. But talking to our old selves and telling them “Have confidence” or “Don’t sweat the small stuff” or “It will pass” is undervaluing the fact that you, we and all of us knew all there was to know back in the day. We learned all there was to know in kindergarten. (Remember ‘Everything I needed to know about life I learned in kindergarten …’?) We just needed a lifetime to follow it.
The best way to inspire the younger generation is to model good character. By being happy in our roles, we bring simchah to those who come after us. By letting go and giving them the space to come to us if they need us (only then can we offer tips, but only if they ask), we model humility and patience. Rather than tell the younger ones that it was “better in the old days” (not true, by the way) and “harder for us in the old days” (not true either), we need to listen and validate the experiences they are having and show them we trust them to figure it out in their own way.
This is why I don’t talk to my old self or preach to my younger friends and relatives. Let them figure it all out themselves so that someday they can look back and make a list of all the things they’ll tell their fourteen-year-old selves. And hopefully, the one message the readers of the list will get is that the human condition of suffering and resolving solutions is normal. We are meant to struggle; and coming out on the other end, having resolved a solution from one day to the next, makes us bigger and stronger and grateful to Hashem.
And no list from an older or wiser person will ever take that away from me. Chazak v’amatz (be strong and of good courage). May we all conquer our challenges every day.