There’s a well-worn line accredited to Mark Twain that is worth spending a moment over. Truth to tell, there is a lot of Mark Twain you could say that about; he was one of those old dudes who clearly knew a thing or two. But this particular quote is worth repeating now because the question of a generational divide, of an unbridgeable separation between men of different ages, has arguably never been more pertinent than it is today. We’ll come back to that point in a moment. In the meanwhile Mr. Twain’s words of wisdom go like this:
“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
— Mark Twain
As an aphorism, it’s all the better for that twist at the end, but it is barbed with a healthy dollop of something more profound. We all have a tendency to see ourselves as the source of any insight that might be doing the rounds. We are, after all, each of us older and wiser than we have ever been – how could we not be sagely and all-seeing?
BLINKERS WE CAN’T SEE
The harsh facts of the matter are that we’re all capable of being as blinkered and befuddled in our thinking as the young Twain. Ambition, energy and technological competence do not equate to a greater understanding of the world than that of our fathers or grandfathers. It just sometimes feels that way.
There has never been a time when one generation’s life experience has been so different to its predecessors – World Wars aside. The digital revolution that we are currently living through is carving a gulf through relationships that, as Twain identifies, has always been difficult.
Imagine a young Mark Twain whose father didn’t know what Snapchat or Twitter was. Imagine the staggering mutual ignorance they might have shared if it were not just their differing times of life, but their entire lifestyles that were digitally divided.
FAMILIES TRUMP TRIBES
It is a basic human characteristic that we include ourselves in groups that reflect our own characteristics. Fathers and sons have very different in-groups based around a very different set of priorities. It is easy to see how they might imagine they could get by without each other. But there is more to the story than a tribal game of them and us.
We can book our air tickets online and believe our parents’ cash handling habits are out of date; we can sign up to play online roulette and never imagine for a minute that the old boy might actually know the game better; we can go out on a date and never imagine for one second that back in the day he might have been more of a player than we’ve ever been.
RESPECT WHAT YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND
Family ties are, in the streamlined, airbrushed, digitally sanitised world we inhabit, one of the few things that offer any genuine emotional depth. We only have one father. He’s the man who conceived us, who was there as we learned to walk and talk, who taught us how to ride a bike and more, and who gave us so much of what it is that makes us who we are. There is only ever one of those.
It’s easy to forget that the beat up old bald guy who sits at home drinking tea with your mom was once every bit as energetic and attractive and creative as you are now. It’s easy to forget that he’s done all of that, learned the lessons and moved on.
Sending him a text or dropping him an email isn’t the way to bridge the gulf. The respect he deserves, whether you can see it or not, warrants you meet him on his own terms. Give your old man a call – tell him Mark Twain sent you.