There was a time when I would have never imagined calling someone a “friend” who was old enough to be my parent (or even just my babysitter). Those “older” folks were my teachers, my music directors, my youth group leaders, possibly my mentors, but they weren’t my “friends”. In my mind, the older generation was orbiting another planet altogether, with not much in common with me and mine. (Naive young thing!) Yes, I felt close to several older relatives, but friendship just wasn’t the word I would have used, and I didn’t believe they would either.
But one summer night in my 30s, I found myself sitting at a long, candlelit backyard table loaded with flowers and linens, passing delicious food and wine to friends on either side—friends who ranged in age from almost a decade older to a decade younger than me. These were women who had poured out their hearts to me. They’d invited me into their lives. I’d heard their hopes and dreams, I knew their heartbreaks, I’d seen their tears—and they mine. So, if these women weren’t my friends, what were they?
And, if that weren’t clear enough, a few years later I knew for certain that something fundamental had shifted in the way I viewed age, and friendship, and generations when a deep, rich friendship blossomed between myself and one of those friend’s daughters.
These days I’m incredibly grateful to have close friends and confidants in nearly every decade of life. I’ve come to see what was obvious to probably everyone else all along (it can take me a minute): Having friendships that span generations gives us tremendous gifts.
Here are just a few:
The view from farther up the road is not better or more beautiful. It’s not even always more accurate or right. But it’s a view we simply cannot have from where we are. When someone a few years ahead offers a glimpse into what she’s seeing and experiencing—when she describes how things look from her vantage point—it can be incredibly revealing. It can help us get our bearings in a way we could never muster up on our own. It provides a perspective of the long view, from someone who’s walked the path and experienced the pitfalls. And the beauty. And so much more.
The same goes for the view from behind. Yes, we may have already walked that part of the journey, but we haven’t seen it all. Not by a long shot. Even what we have seen might be starting to lose its definition, fading around the edges into grainy silhouettes. Walking with our younger friends through their struggles, joys, and ordinary days can bring our own lives into sharper focus. It can remind us of our simpler (or harder) days. It can show us how far we’ve come. And it can invite us to stay engaged in our own fleeting, present moments.
All that added perspective can open floodgates of compassion, grace, and encouragement in both directions. Each one of us, whether older or younger, can often see the challenges of a friend’s present season of life better than she can, precisely because we’re not in it. We can validate that if things are feeling especially uphill for her, that’s because there’s actually a hill, and we’re looking at it. We can clearly see the terrain she’s navigating—the rollercoaster of dating, or school, or career building; the Mount Everest of diapers and toddler questions; the hair-raising, hairpin turns of teenage children; the sudden cliff of an empty nest or retirement; the slow, steady trek toward aging. We can offer generous measures of encouragement and support to these friends, as they work their way up a very different part of the path than ours.
At the same time, we have the chance to offer our younger selves that same kind of encouragement, as we are objectively reminded of how much work those early years were. And we can carry a measure of grace into our future, as we watch our older friends model that reality before us.
In my experience, cross-generational friendship often requires some extra attention to pacing. In some cases, this requires me to take a slow, deep breath. In others, it fills my lungs with a vibrant, buzzing energy. Either way, these friendships can energize us, keeping us perennially alive and ever connected.
One of my favorite things about age-spanning friendships is the wisdom I’ve gleaned. And, let me be clear—that wisdom has never been one-sided. It doesn’t flow downhill, from the oldest to the youngest. On the contrary, I’ve learned as much from my younger friends as my older. One of the most important things I’ve learned is this: We’re all struggling. We’re all learning. We all have something to teach each other. And we can all support each other, no matter our age. Like any kind of diversity, once you get face to face with the other person, you usually find you have more in common than not.
Sharing our journey with people who aren’t in our same season of life can be both liberating and hopeful. It reminds us that where we are is not where we’ve always been, nor where we’ll always be. It invites us to step out of our current reality–and maybe even our comfort zone—and join a friend in hers. It beckons us out of our silos and into the vast expanse of shared life and possibility. It provides tangible opportunities to support one another. And it lifts our eyes beyond ourselves.
If you haven’t tried it yet, here’s to finding a friend who could be your mother (or your daughter), but isn’t. And here’s to friendships that span generations.
BY Julie Rybarczyk - March 17, 2019
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.