Not too long ago, I was hanging out at my friend Josh’s house, and his son Oliver was explaining the video game Fortnite to us.
“Isn’t the object of the game just to kill people?” Josh asked.
“No, dad,” Oliver replied, “the object of the game is to stay alive.”
I immediately thought of John Waters’ Make Trouble:
[A]s you get older, you’ll need youth spies that will keep you abreast of new music that nobody your age has heard of yet or body-piercing mutilations that are becoming all the rage—even budding sexually transmitted diseases you should go to any length to avoid.
He’s made this joke in lots of places, but here he is underscoring the heart of the joke: his insistence on holding onto is his curiosity:
I have youth spies, people that report to me and I give them poppers for good information. But mostly I’m still interested in life. I don’t think it was better when I was young. I think the kids that are 15 and getting into trouble are having as much fun as I did. So I’m still curious. I don’t have fear of flying. I have fear of not flying. Always thinking that tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday.
Waters is what I call a Curious Elder — someone who manages to retain their curiosity as they age and stays interested in what young people are up to. The curious elder isn’t interested in judging youth, they’re interested in learning from them.
For the Curious Elder, “The kids are alright” isn’t an observation, it’s an attitude.
I do wonder sometimes if it’s easier to maintain this attitude if you aren’t a parent. Then again, there’s Brian Eno, a Curious Elder and parent, who I remember telling a lovely story about his daughter playing him Portishead’s “The Rip” in the car and becoming obsessed with it. Here is Eno on approaching the future with the attitude of a Curious Elder:
The revolutions of the future will appear in forms we don’t even recognise—in a language we can’t read. We will be looking out for twists on the old themes but not noticing that there are whole new conversations taking place. Just imagine if all the things about which we now get so heated meant nothing to those who follow us—as mysteriously irrelevant as the nuanced distinctions between anarcho-syndicalism and communist anarchism. At least we can hope for that. As the cybernetician Stafford Beer once said to me: “If we can understand our children, we’re all screwed.” So revel in your mystification and read it as a sign of a healthy future. Whatever happens next, it won’t be what you expected. If it is what you expected, it isn’t what’s happening next.
Emphasis mine. Revel in your mystification!
And of course, the flip side is true for youth: Be curious about what came before you and spend time listening to and learning from your elders — there’s a lot of wisdom and experience they have to share…