What We Have Is a “Failure to Communicate”

A language problem.

We have a language problem, writes geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Marc Agronin in the Wall Street Journal, which is “Why It’s So Hard to Talk to Your Parents About the Coronavirus.”

We don’t want hard times, struggles, and suffering. But one thing they do for us is bring to the surface truths that we already deeply or instinctively knew were lurking just barely underwater. Then we wonder why we didn’t see that hidden, but real, fact all along. This generational “linguistic” truth is real.

Plenty of other reasons make knowing how to feel about this mess difficult already. Even “keep your tail section at home” terms in the same language are confusing. “Stay at home,” “safer at home,” and “shelter in place” are not the same. (Google it.) The first two are close. The second is what we’re doing where I live. Almost nobody is truly doing the third in its strict “don’t budge at all until the bullets quit flying” sense, though New York is close.

New York is close for good reason. The situation there is different than in my town. (For that matter, the situation 70 miles to the east in Lubbock is also different.) The Dallas mayor was frustrated that the Texas governor hasn’t completely shut down the whole state, but the governor is wise enough to know that Dallas County with several thousand confirmed cases is not the same as Bailey County with zero. We need to do some of the same things, but we’d be fools to do all of the same things.

Ah, but then we discover that, even living in the same area, folks of different ages are, as Dr. Agronin says, speaking different languages. They’re speaking “forty-ish” (if they’re 30-50), “sixty-ish” (40-60), and “eighty-ish” (70-90).

Forty-ish speakers figure they’re mostly safe, unless they have “underlying issues,” even if they catch Covid-19. But then they figure out that their parents, speakers of sixty-ish, aren’t scared enough and need their wings clipped and their keys hidden. “You went where!?” Forty-ish speakers have shifted roles from “occasional drop-by driver, porter, or tech support” to “protectors.”

But their protectees are unruly and not accustomed to feeling the need to be protected or managed. Sixty-ish speakers are most recently accustomed to taking care of both the generations ahead of them and behind them. They’re not totally cut up that the younger generation might get a chance to worry a little (about time, donchathink!), but they think of themselves as being still in their prime. Caregivers not care-receivers. Vulnerable?! Since when? It feels like an insult or a demotion and a lie all at the same time. And, worse, what if . . . it’s . . . true? When did that happen!?

And the eighty-ish speakers? Most are far sharper, Dr. Agronin writes, than we realize. Their “healthy aging minds are neither depressed nor disabled.” They are less impulsive than younger folks, less “reactive.” They know that time and relationships are precious and that routines are comforting. “Social distancing” negatively impacts all of those things. Eighty-ish speakers are tough and “surprisingly resilient.” They’ve met “crises” before and don’t plan to panic. (No accident that “key leaders” like Dr. Fauci are from this bunch.) Most are much more worried about “loss of connection” than getting sick.

So how do we talk to each other? Dr. Agronin says that we listen, and then try to hear what’s really being said. A forty-ish speaker saying, “You went where?!” means, “I love you, and I’m worried about you” even if a sixty-ish speaker hears, “You’re older and more vulnerable than you think.”

I’m thankful we all have a Father who is, in all respects, the King of all ages. He understands and loves us all. Completely.



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Copyright 2020 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or profiteering is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.



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