My English composition students have been revising their first, low-impact, warm-up essay assignment this week. We’re mostly working on organization and sentence style at this point, so the assignment is cognitively easy: write about some aspect of “food culture” that they know from personal experience. I’m receiving numerous essays about family food traditions, everything from grilled steaks to cherry pastries to pastelillos to Chinese dumplings.
Grandmothers and grandfathers figure prominently in these essays, as do mothers and fathers and cousins, all assembled to be “brought closer together,” partly through food. It’s amusing to note how my writers are suddenly aware of the formerly-taken-for-granted labor of the women who typically pull off family feasts. And it’s charming to witness how much these very young adults treasure family traditions, shared from generation to generation.
What happens when that continuity breaks? Some of them wonder in their essays whether they will carry on these traditions themselves. Who knows? They’re only eighteen or nineteen, most of them. Who knows what the world will be like in their misty, uncertain future?
I’m a little wistful when I read these essays because I grew up rather unmoored from my family’s previous generations. Three of my four grandparents were dead before I was born. The third had succumbed to benign dementia by the time I knew her, and she died when I was twelve. I was by far the youngest of my cousins on my mother’s side, and I never met my father’s two sisters or their families. Ever. They were never spoken of. There was no family lore from Dad, ever, for reasons that to this day remain mysterious.
I took this kind of generational loneliness for granted, since I never knew anything else. Even from my parents, I felt a kind of generational distance. They were born in 1926; I was born in 1965. What a different world they lived in! They were shaped by the Depression and World War II, by the post-war economic boom, by the American Songbook. I was shaped by… Watergate? Glam rock? Stagflation and Reaganomics?
My father could not understand why, as young adults, Ron and I struggled to pay bills—how could that be when we had so much education, the key that was supposed to unlock upward mobility? Were we just being irresponsible with our money? I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain how real wages had declined and health costs soared—or any of the reasons for economic differences between the 1950s and the 1990s. I think my parents assumed that the world should be staying the same. Their kids would play the adulthood game by the same rules they did, but with more advantages. That’s the American Dream, yes? It assumes the game is at least mostly stable, that the world changes only gradually.
But the pace of change has only accelerated. I hesitate to give my adult children any advice because they are struggling to manage in a yet-again vastly different world. The decline of the established church and the rise of the “nones.” A gig economy and a labor rights resurgence. A poisoned public discourse and the disintegration of governance norms. Gender fluidity. The wake of the digital revolution and the rise of AI. Climate change and an ominously uncertain future. I didn’t even understand the world I grew up in—how can I understand theirs? I partly understand their generation’s innate distrust that any institution, any system will deliver on its promises, but I benefitted from institutional stability in a way they probably never will. They simply assume everything is in flux, because it is.
Distant from my parents’ and their parents’ worlds, scrambling to understand my children’s world, I feel a kind of chronological loneliness. That’s the term I came up with to describe this feeling of floating between.
I wonder: is this feeling new? No, it can’t be. Traditions have always gotten challenged or disrupted by the vicissitudes of history and by rebellious young people. There are probably ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets that read: “Kids these days!” But is chronological loneliness more acute right now? Possibly.
Not only older folk like me are subject to chronological loneliness. I commend to you this beautiful essay by Katie Van Zanen, a writer in her early thirties that I have admired since she was a student at Calvin. Her presenting question in this essay: how do I live in a world where everything I have loved is dying? She writes about her denomination (the CRC), about people de-churching, about climate change. “I feel heartsick at least once a day,” she writes.
Well, that’s something we have in common, then.
My students in a different class read an essay this week by Beth Minh Nguyen, author of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. In the essay, Nguyen recounts her own story of generational disconnect. In her case, the disconnect was sudden, violent, and driven by the Vietnam War. Her family escaped Saigon in 1975 literally as the city fell to the Viet Cong. Well, some of her family. For complicated reasons, her mother got left behind. Beth grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has struggled with identity and continuity all her life, even more poignantly now that she is a mother herself.
Many, many people throughout history have endured the severe chronological loneliness of immigration, refugee desperation, trafficking, conquest, exile. I can hardly imagine that kind of disruption. My own tiny ache doesn’t even register on that scale. Nevertheless, I wonder what to do with this feeling. Do I need to “do” anything? Maybe it just is what it is.
I do know that furiously clawing back toward some imagined, ideal past is a futile and destructive way to deal with one’s chronological loneliness. Bunkering down with only the like-minded of one’s own generation doesn’t help, either. Personally, I’m not the least bit tempted by either of those options anyway. Instead I listen to my students and my own children and wonder: what do I carry with me—what knowledge, what experience, what wisdom—that can help them as they do their own work of navigating this world in flux?
I suppose we are all left with E. M. Forster’s famous phrase, “Only connect.” And perhaps with Matthew Arnold’s idea, expressed in his admiration for a friend who “saw life steadily and saw it whole.” Connect across the generations as best we can. Try to see life steadily and see it whole. Whatever the church is becoming, could we try to create renewed spaces in it for those endeavors? I believe the only path to deep connection with each other, to deep wisdom about ourselves and our world, is to live, as best we can, before the face of God. That’s a gift I carry and want to pass along. How?
It’s very hard, I know. The older I get, the more I struggle for perspective, the more I try to hold in my mind at once all the teeming generations of history, the bewilderments of the present, wild speculations about our human future. All this in my mind and a quiet loneliness in my heart. I try to find God there, too, Ancient of Days, balm for all aches.