Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot on youth, education, age, and beauty

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot's The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other was one of the few texts that I reached for over and over and, sigh, over again as a classroom teacher. It served as a compass, providing direction as I navigated the sometimes potholed terrain separating parents from classroom teachers. I belonged squarely in the latter category, and became disarmingly familiar with the treacherousness of this terrain during the bi-annual ritual known as the parent-teacher conference. Lawrence-Lightfoot's words helped me norm and put into perspective my own anxieties as a particularly young teacher, and better understand and honor those of my students'—my childrens'—parents and loved ones. A MacArthur Genius Award winning sociologist at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, Lawrence-Lightfoot has spent her career examining relationships within and among families and communities. Her most recent book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, continues this exploration, albeit in a different vein. It turns the magnifying lens on the connection between youth and aging. "All of us at this point, to some degree, are on a search for meaningfulness, for purposefulness. And we want to find what this next 25 years, this penultimate chapter of our life, is going to be about. And we're ready for something new. For a new experience. For a new adventure. And I think all of us, to some degree, experience some burnout. Burnout is not about working too hard. Or working too diligently or being over committed. Burnout is about boredom. And so, I think in some ways this is about sort of moving beyond the boredom to compose, to invent and reinvent the path that we're on," she says. Watch Lawrence-Lightfoot engage Bill Moyers in a rich conversation below, and manifest a kind of ease, beauty, and wisdom that really, truly, only comes with age.

BILL MOYERS: Commercials for skin creams and cosmetics galore. But despite the youthful fantasies on the television screen, we are living much longer. Truth is, there are 76 million of us in what the noted educator Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot calls "The Third Chapter," a time for passion and adventure. I first interviewed Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot a generation ago, when she was a young professor at Harvard University. Even then she was talking about life as a continuing course in adult education.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Schooling is what happens inside the walls of a school; some of it is educational. Education happens everywhere.

BILL MOYERS: Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has now been on the Harvard faculty for 37 years. In fact, upon her retirement, she will become the first African-American woman in the history of that university to have an endowed professorship named in her honor. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, welcome to the Journal.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Wonderful to be here.

BILL MOYERS: And here you are, writing now, about aging. What are you trying to tell me?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Well, what happened was several years ago, I began to hear at almost every cocktail party, dinner party, professional conference and meeting, someone would lean into me, and sort of say what I began to call confessional moments. Something about what they were truly excited about, passionate about, an adventure that they were on that was new for them, and I would listen. Their voice held both extraordinary passion and excitement, but on the other hand, sort of a shyness or reticence. As if what they were talking about, we shouldn't take too seriously. But on the other hand, it was something that they felt deeply about. And I began to wonder what were these moments about? You know, that people were talking about new learning in their lives, new adventures that they were taking, new risks and that their commentary about these moments was so much more excited than talking about their work, or even at that moment, talking about their family. So, I began to wonder, again, what is the text, and what is the subtext of these moments that I would- I began to call confessional moments? And so, I wanted to really investigate this curiosity of mine.

BILL MOYERS: Were you having any confessional moments of your own?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I probably was, but mostly I was experiencing this as listener, as receiver of these other experiences. But there was always something, and this continued throughout the research for this book, that resonated with me about it. That all of us, at this point, to some degree, I think, are on a search for meaningfulness, for purposefulness. And we want to find what this next 25 years. This, in fact, penultimate chapter of our life is going to be about. And we're ready for something new, for a new experience, for a new adventure. And I think all of us, to some degree, experience some burnout. Burnout is not about-- is not about working too hard. Or working too diligently or being overcommitted. Burnout is about boredom. And so, I think in some ways this is about sort of moving beyond the boredom to compose, to invent and reinvent the path that we're on.

BILL MOYERS: And yet, you say that while they would talk excitedly and with passion about this vision or this confessional moment, there was also a note of fear in their voices.


BILL MOYERS: They were sort of closed down.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I think two things are happening there. One is that we are still a youth obsessed culture. And so, what we all believe, who have grown up in this culture is that we should be in retreat at this moment. We should be, you know, kind of pulling back and feeling comfortable and staying still. And so, these stories that they were telling me, that were about moving out, taking an adventure, seem to be sort of against the cultural norms that we have been embedded in for most of our lives. I think the other thing that's happening is that it's hard to leave these roles that have given us status. That have given us sort of responsibility. That have maybe even given us influence and power. Those roles have become comfortable. And to go on this journey that takes us away from that feels terrifying at first.

BILL MOYERS: What has happened to bring about the change in our perception of the elderly?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Well, we're living longer. That's one big piece. That the arc of our lives have changed enormously. So, we're not dying at 50. We are, if we're lucky, living to 80, 85, 90. So that this period that I'm talking about, between 50 and 75, as I said before, is a penultimate period. So that it offers us the opportunity and the challenge of doing something meaningful in it. I also think that there's a way in which my message anticipates what I hope will come. That's when I say, and I really mean it, that this is the most, perhaps, transformative time of our lives. Most exciting, in terms of new learning. Limitless in its opportunities. A lot of people don't experience that, because the cultural shifts and the institutional shifts haven't yet happened, in order to support that in most of us.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Well, it- what I mean is that most people really do see this time, as I said earlier, as a time of retrenchment, right? As a time- they don't enjoy the beauty, the wisdom, the experience that comes with aging. And we continue to look at younger people, as those people who have the energy and the drive and the new ideas, right? Now, I must say that Eric Erikson, my favorite Developmental Psychologist from way back, said in the early 1950s, talked about the stages of life across time. And talked about this time, the third chapter, as the penultimate of eight stages.

BILL MOYERS: The next to the last.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: The next to the last. And he said, even back then, that each one of these stages is characterized by a crisis, a crisis of whether we're going to move forward, progress, or whether we're going to move back, regress. So, it is this tension always, at each of our developmental stages, between progression and regression. And this third stage is a crisis between what he calls "generativity" and stagnation. Sounds very dramatic. Generativity, having to do with using your energies to serve, to teach, to mentor, to express through art, to innovate, to give something to society, right? To leave a legacy. And stagnation, meaning, "I'm going to stay right here, and make my mark, continue to make my mark, in an individual pursuit."

BILL MOYERS: Well, there's something of a cultural and political factor there, because it was, what? In 1935, in the New Deal, that the Social Security Act was passed, and people were told they have a quote "right to retire".

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: And a lot of people experienced stopping work as a kind of death.

BILL MOYERS: My father did.


BILL MOYERS: I mean, when he retired at 65, something in him died. I know that's a cliché. But I could see it.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: And a lot of people continue to experience that. And one of the things that happens in this book is tracing these 40 people, many of them deciding to retire, but continuing to do work that's meaningful. Continuing to figure out a way to be productive. To be purposeful. To be creative. To be innovative. BILL MOYERS: You acknowledge in here that these 40 people you have interviewed across the country do not represent the majority of people in this country. You just put a face on some of these figures by men and women by talking to them. And it's also obvious that the book deals with people of an affluent class. People who have the means to make choices and to go this way instead of that way. Whereas there are, you know, six, seven, eight million people in this country, over 55, who are living in poverty, and they don't have choices.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Right. Well, we think they don't have choices. One of the things I talk about is perceived abundance. How do we experience our life? Do we see whether we have a great deal of material resources or not, do we see choices in front of us?

BILL MOYERS: One of the interesting insights in here to me is that you say there's a difference between this new learning we have to do when we enter the third chapter, and the old narrow cognitive learning of the classroom. What's the difference?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Well, almost everyone that I talk to in this book, even if they were very successful students in school, had very successful careers by all of the sort of traditional standards, talked about the fact that the learning that goes on in the third chapter is often contrary, a contradiction to the ways in which they were taught, and excelled in school. So, school taught us to move quickly with speed. To be singular in our ambitions. To be competitive. To not waste time. To not show failure or weakness. And in the third chapter, they talk about the learning as needing to be creative, needing to be collaborative. That we need to fail, in order to discover the best way that we can learn. In other words, at the best diagnostic for learning.

BILL MOYERS: To make a fool out of ourselves, you say in here.


BILL MOYERS: To be willing to make a fool.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: To be willing to fail and make a fool out of ourselves, at least in the short run. And, of course, the ingredient that's so important, which is humor. Being able to laugh at ourselves. Lighten up. You know? Not worry about our facade and our persona. But really just get into the process.

BILL MOYERS: One of these people actually says to you that she's learned that patience is a major gift of life. And that it's so important to do things slowly. Which she had forgotten over the course of her life.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Well one of the things I talk about in this book, that's so important, that we need to do, in terms of projects for the future, in our society is really engage in much more cross-generational encounters, discourse, conversation, and movements.

BILL MOYERS: But that's so hard to do, because we are separated into our-


BILL MOYERS: -into our different realities, right?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I think that's absolutely true. But I think that one example that I found so exciting, of working with young people, and young people working with old people in a common project, was this Obama campaign. So, in New Hampshire, three or four times, I went out with a young kid, from Dartmouth who we were paired together. And this was a really interesting, I kept on wishing that I was a fly on the wall, or an ethnographer, watching us navigate our relationship.


SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: And these encounters. Because this was a kid who had, you know, voluminous knowledge about the sort of politics and the names, who was incredibly energetic, who had great ideas. Who was completely urgent and impatient and a terrible listener, right? And also someone who's stereotyped all of New Hampshire. He thought they were all kind of backwoods, rural, country people. Republicans. Right? And that they hadn't really thought deeply about these matters. And that all he needed to do was feed them the information. Right? And not expect them to change. My approach, of course, was one of beginning by listening to them. Not assuming that I knew who they were, just because I knew where they lived. Right? Not beginning with a stereotype, but with trying to-with expecting that they had the capacity to think deeply, as well. You know? And so the negotiation of our relationship was one of my helping him wait. Helping him listen. and for me, it was really sort of experiencing and catching his energy, his drive, his impatience, and his optimism.

BILL MOYERS: Clearly, he had more energy than you, right?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: He had more energy. But his impatience often depleted his energy, right? You know, because he was so impatient to get the message across.

BILL MOYERS: You quote throughout this book, someone who was on this show recently. Nikki Giovanni, the poet. And she has a poem in which she says, "There are sounds which shatter the staleness of lives, transporting the shadows into the dreams." Most people I know, 24 years old or 74 years old, want to shatter the staleness. What have you learned about how to do that?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Well, one of the things that I experienced here in talking to people was this dynamic of loss and liberation. That most people that I talk to in the third chapter had to begin with childhood stories, in order to begin to explain the ways in which they were able to move forward into new learning in the third chapter. Because much of what happens in that early time is often a feeling of not being supported, not being nourished, maybe even being neglected and abused.

BILL MOYERS: When they're young?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: When they're young, and to return to that place of hurt. To try to understand it. Not to blame anyone. But to try to understand it. Whether that's a metaphoric return, or whether that's literally going back to Ohio and walking up the steps of your father's house and knocking on the door, and talking to him, honestly, about what you're experience was as a small child. Whatever it is. It's often getting over those early negative experiences, if you had them. It's very- at least I experienced it with these 40 people. As a very common theme. And people sometimes discovered those early hurts in the process of the interviewing. That some story that they had told many, many, many times before, which were the positive, affirmative, optimistic story. They discover the underbelly of, as we talk. And the discovery of that underbelly illuminates their reasons for moving forward now.

BILL MOYERS: So, when they identify these wounds, and they begin to open them, what happened? What do they tell you happened in enabling them to go forward?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: If I could think of-there's sort of two things that came out of this book. One, the most important in new learning is curiosity. And that's often dampened or muted in school. When somehow children stop asking what I think is a primal question. "So, where did he go? So, then what happened? So, why do you feel that way?" I mean, just, these are primal questions. You know? And somehow if there's an answer, and only one answer to these questions, people stop asking the questions. And I think the other thing that's important is the listening. When I talk about this, the importance of cross-generational projects and dialogues. It is about young people listening to old people. Old people listening to young people. Having a real discourse with respect and with empathy.

BILL MOYERS: That 24 year old you politicked with last fall in New Hampshire. What does he want to do with his life and what did he learn from you about what he could do?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Well one of the things that I think he learned from me was that he will have many chances to remake himself. Meaning that there will be many chapters and many challenges. I think the other thing that we talked a lot about in our walks from house to house was this sort of failure. That is, what I have learned, and what most people at our age have learned, as we look back on our lives, the value of those moments when we have failed, and we need to pick ourselves up and move on. And so, I sort of talked about welcoming those moments. But most of the time, he was talking. And he was talking about politics, right?

BILL MOYERS: The people in here don't talk much about death.


BILL MOYERS: Why is that? Was that deliberate on your part?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: No. It wasn't. I think Pamela, who you just talked about, is one of the few people in the book-


SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: -that talks about death. They're too busy living.

BILL MOYERS: But surely they have to think in the back of their mind-


BILL MOYERS: They can see the grains of sand going down the hourglass.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I think there is an expression of urgency in their work, in their new work, and in their new learning. This notion of limited time is very much there. So, you see this incredible paradox of the emerging patience of this period, and this sense of urgency, of time moving on.

BILL MOYERS: So, I'll come back to you. Are you feeling that sense of urgency? You're only 64 To me, that's just adolescence. In the third chapter.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Well, I certainly am feeling the curiosity. I'm feeling the urgency. I'm feeling the patience. I'm feeling the courage to ask questions that may not have been asked before. To say what it is I need to say. It isn't that I think I'm invincible at all, but I have these qualities that have been, I think, deepened during this period of time. That I think will hold me and will help me move forward in this third chapter.

BILL MOYERS: People in here talk openly about their own fears. What are you afraid of, at this stage?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Sometimes I'm afraid of loneliness. Even though I'm surrounded by glorious family and Friends and have lots of love.

BILL MOYERS: I mean I know about your mother, we talked about her 20 some odd years ago. I read your book about her. What is she doing now at 94?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: She's very much in the world and engaged in the world. But in the meantime at 94, most of her friends have died. And I think that I see that as a profound loneliness. Right? And so that's one of the things that I worry about.

BILL MOYERS: You finish this manuscript, had to finish this manuscript, shortly before the great economic collapse.


BILL MOYERS: How do you think the new reality would change the answers they gave you to their Questions because these people largely could afford to make this change, make this turn.


BILL MOYERS: How do you think the great collapse would change their answers?

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Well, I don't know that it would change it very much and one of the things that I get back that I've been hearing is the fact that the capacity to innovate in a time of reduced resources, in a time when you need to sacrifice, in a time when there is less stuff. The capacity to innovate is very much what these people are talking about. Innovation, creativity, that comes out of an experience that we have now of less. You know, that this notion of 'we have less.' We are forced therefore to do more with less. To figure out ways of combining our resources, of collaborating, of, as I say, innovating. I remember times a time in my life when I was lowest and my mother saying, "Sweetheart, out of this suffering will come creativity." And she was right. And I don't mean to be idealizing this at all. But I think there are ways, I mean, even at a place like Harvard, right? That's lost 30 percent of its endowment. There's a way in which this reduction in our resources forces us to think more dynamically, more creatively, about how we can do more with less. In fact, how we can shape a new legacy in this time of sacrifice.

BILL MOYERS: You make me think particularly about the baby boomers, about who you write in here without categorizing them I mean, because all these people are not baby boomers, but some are. The baby boomers in particular grew up in a period of prosperity of relative abundance and they saw themselves as powerful actors who wanted to shape the culture and paradigm of their era. And they brought as you know considerable resources and wealth to the challenge. Now the rug has been pulled out from under them. And I wonder how they are reacting to the new reality.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Well it's true. I think that part of what we did as baby boomers in our younger years, you know, we were bodacious, we were audacious. We were entitled, we felt we were empowered. And we felt that we stopped the Vietnam War. Right? We felt that we grew the women's movement. We were engaged in civil rights activities, we made a difference. We were the actors on the horizon. And even as it seems to me, with the rug pulled out as you say, we still have this feeling about ourselves. We still believe that we can make a difference. We still believe that we can come up with good ideas that might help to solve what's happening now. And we must learn however that we are not the owners of this intellectual capital or this cultural capital. And that's why I say this sort of energy of bringing people together, cross generations to solve these problems. (source/full text)

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