Doing Dialogue

The Metrics of Age

July 18, 2017


A much older friend of mine once told me that every generation of parents blame young people for not doing things their way. He’d conjure up a frustrated parent’s voice with his slight Boston accent, “Tradition lost!” “No respect!” Even when he was brutally honest, he’d smile without ever knowing I could see a mystical wisdom circling his head like the whip cream in my latte. Then he’d always finish with, “But you know that’s not true.”

That was before I became a father. And that was before we lost him.

I’ve been a father for a while now, and I’m old enough to be sitting at a table with a younger person who might very well strike up the same conversation I had had with my white-haired friend. I wonder how much wisdom really does come with age. And if it does, and the fact that aging is a constant, I would guess that it’s the only divide that we eventually all bridge.

It might be common practice to perceive older people as different, or at least different enough. Ageism is a problem, of course - so for all of us it becomes an odd self-fulfilling prophecy, a full-circle story. Because unlike ‘the other’, when it comes to things like race, culture, gender, class, abilities, aging is inevitable. And even though getting old doesn’t automatically give us agency to attribute all of our actions to wisdom, there is a certain cultural agreement that experience gives birth to knowledge - good or bad.

Adaptation, evolution and flexibility are part of the human experience, yet we don’t really like change. We’re designed to sprint briefly, then sit. It’s why rush hour traffic is so annoying. But age is a universal principle, just like gravity. (Some may even argue that age is the product of gravity, but that’s only something older folks can understand.) The only way we can ever come to terms with this reality is by sharing through talking.

Conversation is like the flight of an albatross. Trajectory unknown, bending to the prevailing winds, in tandem with its thoughts through light and dark. Alighting on the truth for a moment then, the majestic bird settles into an understanding, and an old man gives a young man his gentle advice.

That’s called tradition. I’m at the same table I was twenty years ago with my old friend. Age is the metric for empathy.


Teja joined Essential Partners in April, 2017. He brings a thirty-year combined experience as a PBS documentary producer, professor of media/communications and race & ethnic relations, diversity and inclusion trainer and public speaker. He has an Emmy Award and three Telly Awards for social issues PBS documentaries, and is the author of four books about race and culture. He started his company, Entertaining Diversity, Inc. in 1992, to teach issues of racism through entertainment. Teja is African-American/Filipino and German, and grew up in Japan, has traveled through many countries and has been a keynote speaker in over 1,200 locations around the US. Telling stories that build bridges between many perspectives has always been his mission in life and work.