Cross-Generational Relationships

So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. “Let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,” he said, “and then I will come with you.”

“Go back,” Elijah replied. “What have I done to you?”

So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his servant.

(1 Kings 19:19-21)

According to a Barna research poll, about one-third of Americans don’t have a friend or confidant in a different generation. [1] Among Christians, that number is slightly lower, with about 28% not having a cross-generational friend. For non-religious Americans, 41% do not have a friend of different generations. Statistics like these, among others, point to a shift I have seen personally and heard anecdotally about the growing number of people who associate only with those in their generational cohort.

When Elisha was called by Elijah he was very much a young man, presumably living with his parents, doing honest plowing work. In addition to being a prophet and leader in Israel, Elijah also finds himself as a mentor and friend to Elisha as time goes on. Their story, among many other things, provides a beautiful example of a cross-generational relationship for us to follow today.

A cross-generational friendship is akin to planting the seeds for a tree that will bear fruit once your grandchildren are adults. Elijah’s role as a prophet of the Lord lasted much beyond his brief life, and it is crucial that he prepares Elisha to fill his role once he departs. It is easy to dismiss the inevitable nature of our death, yet in a mentorship that spans generations, the inevitability of death has a crucial role in the creation of the relationship. The sorrow of that inevitable separation, as strong as it may be, helps pave the way for the young to rise to the occasion and not always be in the shadow of their mentor. We see this struggle for Elisha to let go of Elijah in 2 Kings 2:1-12 and his step up to continue Elijah’s mission.

“Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. And Elijah said to Elisha, “Please stay here, for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. And the sons of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he said, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”

Elijah said to him, “Elisha, please stay here, for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”

Then Elijah said to him, “Please stay here, for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.

Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. And he took up the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” And when he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.”

(2 Kings 2: 1-12)

There are three reflections from this passage I want to point out. First, we see the transformation of Elisha from a close disciple of Elijah to the main prophet of Israel at the time. We see Elisha lingering as he seeks to postpone Elijah’s departure, then we see him mourning and tearing his own cloak in two before picking up Elijah’s cloak and his role. Secondly, we see the intimacy between Elijah and Elisha as Elisha calls out his last words to his mentor, “my father.” Finally, we see how Elijah, when asked by Elisha for his power twice, ultimately trusts God to guide his protégé when he departs. This story encapsulates a beautiful cross-generational friendship, a friendship that maintains different roles between the older and younger friend and integrates the friendship under God.

Normatively, the older friend in a cross-generational friendship will provide an example for the younger friend to aspire towards. The older friend, having gone through many of the same challenges that will face the younger friend, can provide an inspiring example for the younger. Having a mentor is most crucial when the inevitable failures of life happen. The mentor assists the mentee in seeing a way past the dark moment towards a better future. 

On the part of the older friend, having a younger friend can help you keep in touch with changes in the world today. As we age, we tend towards stasis, and change becomes increasingly difficult. Seeing how your younger friend is able to adapt and live in an increasingly changing world can help you keep up and not become isolated in an old curmudgeon bubble. Further, some of the small tips and tricks of modern life can be learned naturally, through the relationship.

My relationship with my Dzia Dzia (grandfather) is my own personal example of how beneficial cross-generational relationships have been for me. The biggest benefit was the insight my Dzia Dzia gave me into my own specific area of life. He is from the tail end of the WWII generation and emphasized the value of honest work in many of the (funny!) stories he would tell of his time in the working world. He also helped me see beyond my college-centric world by appreciating those who work in blue-collar backgrounds. [3] In his relationships with family and close friends, he set a model for friendship that lasts decades and is always future-oriented—even beyond one’s own life.

On my Dzia Dzia’s side, I have seen the benefit of maintaining strong relationships with his grandchildren (and kids). From spontaneous family trips, the purchase of a smartphone, and the regular calls, my Dzia Dzia knows he is loved and his family further loves having him around. The energy of youth can be contagious, and my Dzia Dzia is the recipient of such energy. Furthermore, when my Dzia Dzia sees success and virtue grow in his grandkids it helps foster greater hope for their future and those after.

Knowing my Dzia Dzia’s expectations for his grandkids also inspired me to live those expectations out. While we are sinners and live out our lives tinted or tainted? by our sins, the inspiration that we can provide and be provided for plays a huge role in our formation. One of the key benefits of living communally (vs atomistically) is the encouragement and inspiration we give one another.

Finally, I wanted to end with a quote from St. Ambrose and St. Augustine’s classic example of cross-generational mentorship. Augustine writes of Ambrose:

“Nor did I now groan in my prayers that You would help me; but my mind was wholly intent on knowledge, and eager to dispute. And Ambrose himself I esteemed a happy man, as the world counted happiness, in that such great personages held him in honour; only his celibacy appeared to me a painful thing. But what hope he cherished, what struggles he had against the temptations that beset his very excellences, what solace in adversities, and what savoury joys Your bread possessed for the hidden mouth of his heart when ruminating on it, I could neither conjecture, nor had I experienced. Nor did he know my embarrassments, nor the pit of my danger. For I could not request of him what I wished as I wished, in that I was debarred from hearing and speaking to him by crowds of busy people, whose infirmities he devoted himself to. With whom when he was not engaged (which was but a little time), he either was refreshing his body with necessary sustenance, or his mind with reading. But while reading, his eyes glanced over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Ofttimes, when we had come (for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of those who came should be announced to him), we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and, having long sat in silence (for who dared interrupt one so intent?), we were fain to depart, inferring that in the little time he secured for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamour of other men’s business, he was unwilling to be taken off. And perchance he was fearful lest, if the author he studied should express anything vaguely, some doubtful and attentive hearer should ask him to expound it, or to discuss some of the more abstruse questions, as that, his time being thus occupied, he could not turn over as many volumes as he wished; although the preservation of his voice, which was very easily weakened, might be the truer reason for his reading to himself. But whatever was his motive in so doing, doubtless in such a man was a good one.”

(Chapter 3, Book 6 of Augustine’s Confessions)

[1] I was pleasantly surprised at how high this number was! 

[2] Or an example of what to avoid doing.

[3] My Dzia Dzia would joke and call my good friend who is a welder my friend “who actually worked for a living.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *