A few months ago, I spoke at a conference where the average age of my audience was 72. One of the issues they asked me to address was how, exactly, to connect with younger generations.
As I was considering what to say, I was reminded of the surrealist painter Rene Magritte. He famously presented a painting of a pipe once, and asked his audience, What do you see?
They, of course, responded that they saw a pipe.
No! he exclaimed. This is a PICTURE of a pipe!
Of course, as some critics pointed out, inasmuch as pictures represent actual objects, that image really was a pipe. Using imagery representation is how we learn; we point to a picture of a banana and tell our children, this is a banana. Then, when they see the real thing, they can recognize it. But the point that Magritte was trying to make was this: Everything we see hides something else.
Sure, it was a picture of a pipe. But you could never pick that pipe up and smoke it.
The picture we have of the younger generation is just that: a picture. Our own shorthand imagery, used for convenience and comfort, hiding the deeper truth of who that younger person really is.
Which reminded me of another famous artist: Michelangelo, who famously said, “I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Or, more specifically, “In every block of marble I see a statue…I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it.”
When we see the simple picture of today’s youth, it’s an image painted of our own preconceptions and prejudice. What we see hides something else. We look at people and think we see what they are, but what we see is merely a representation of them in that moment. There may be truth and depth there, but it hides something different.
The teens who are doing drugs and engaging in destructive behavior are hurting and trying to cover that hurt up. If we stopped at what we see, we would never get the real experience. If we stop at the picture of the pipe, we never smoke the pipe.
Whether we’re 75 trying to connect with our 16-year-old grandchildren, or a boss trying to connect with her millennial employee, we would be wise to remember: The Angel is already in there. How can we carve it out?