Sera Thompson has lived and worked in
Canada, the United States, and Southern Africa. Her work
has been in environmental conservation, community development,
and individual transformation. She was raised in Shambhala,
an international community of meditation centers based on
One evening when I was in college, a friend
asked me to take her babysitting job for her. I said yes,
little realizing that I would soon be entering into another
world. After ringing the doorbell to the children's house,
I had a brief but meaningful conversation with their parents.
I enjoyed getting the parents' perspective on the challenges
of juggling career and family. The mother and father were
relaxed and kind, settled into their life in a way that
most of my young friends, searching to find their place
in the world, were not.
After they left, I enjoyed a pre-bedtime
conversation with two remarkable people. The 5- and 7-year-old
boys played Legos with me and spoke about dinosaurs and
tractors. It was fun for me to play again; I got to travel
to an enchanted land where rivers and trees appeared just
by speaking of them.
At the end of the night, I walked home through
a snowy street and felt blessed. The experience brought
me a stark awareness of how age-homogeneous my life had
become. I realized that I spent time only with other young
university students and that I was deficient in relationships
with children and elders. I saw that to experience the fullness
of life, I needed to have those relationships.
I've recently come to this same understanding
through my work, but with even broader implications. I help
coordinate Pioneers of Change, a global network of young
adults (ages 25-35) who are trying to foster a better world.
It is a learning community of individuals living in more
than 70 different countries. We share experiences and learn
together about how social change happens and what it means
to start with ourselves.
In my work, I think often about a wellknown
Iroquois saying: "In our every deliberation we must consider
the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations."
To me, those words invite us to expand our intergenerational
friendships even beyond our own lifetimes.
Recently, I was able to explore some of
these ideas in a series of two intergenerational dialogues
(in Halifax, Canada and Boston), which Pioneers of Change
helped to host. The participants were aged 14 to 86.
We began with everyone arranged by age in
a big circle, with the youngest and the eldest sitting next
to each other. As I looked around the circle, I sensed my
own place in the cycle of human life. It was like seeing
a map of the life journey. I remembered what it was like
to be a teenager, to be brave and naïve enough to say exactly
what I thought. From others in the group, I learned some
of the dilemmas and questions that emerge for people at
mid-life- questions about how to use the understanding and
stature they have gained in order to make a difference.
I listened to the gentle stories of a grandfather, no longer
preoccupied with the rush of working life, and with still
so much humor and wisdom to share.
Central to our conversation was always the
question of action. When we really think about what is meaningful
to us, and see ourselves as part of a greater whole, we
naturally ask ourselves, what should we do with our lives?
In response to the challenge posed to the
group, "What question, if asked here, would send ripples
through this group, the entire conference, and even the
world?" people asked the big questions, while grounding
them in the practicalities of their own lives. We talked
about how to approach work as a meaningful activity, about
creating opportunities in our spheres of influence for new
approaches, about learning to embrace dissonance and change.
We discussed the importance of finding mentors (both older
and younger) and the primacy of our individual roles in
building sustainable societies.
In the circle, the imminence of my own death
was palpable, and I thought about how short and precious
our lives are. I saw myself flowing in a continuous stream
and knowing that the current is picking up speed. I saw
the future coming fast and felt a genuine and pressing concern
about the world I am leaving to children who are not yet
born. I could almost see their faces, trailing off into
the leading edge of our circle. At the same time, I was
pointed to the wisdom of the ancestors. They were present
too, and the wisdom of human beings who have been living
on this planet for ages seemed to become available.
The intergenerational dialogues took me
to a new level in my understanding of the ancient advice
to consider the next seven generations in our decision making.
In the past, I have had a conceptual, and perhaps romantic,
notion of stewardship. Now, my responsibility to the future
feels concrete and absolute; it's something I feel in my
heart and know in my bones.
I admit that my actions in the world are
still not always aligned with that understanding. However,
this awareness itself provides a motivation for me to think
carefully about how I spend my resources and my time. I
strive to help build cultures that operate from an underlying
premise of long-term sustainability and to make my daily
choices on behalf of the generations of children still to
come. It's kind of like babysitting for our great-great-great-grandchildren.
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