This article ran in Newsday, February 15, 2004, with the title, "Confucius Speaks."
By Sam Crane
Though most Americans think of him as a source of bad jokes – “Confucius say…” – the ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius, actually offers us an important counterweight to the self-centeredness of contemporary life. I came to appreciate him in a new light one day while I was washing my son.
A little background: my son, Aidan, is profoundly disabled. He is twelve now, but cannot see or talk or stand or walk. His mental capacity is that of an infant. He has an intractable seizure disorder, a stomach tube and a tracheostomy in his neck. His birth and subsequent medical travails have, over the years, forced my wife and I to re-evaluate much of what we thought was important and normal and happy. We have found new sources of joy and pride. A simple smile or laugh from Aidan may, in itself, be enough to make a day good, regardless of whatever else is happening at work or in the world.
To care for Aidan, I have had to readjust my priorities. However much in the past I enjoyed international travel, that is now less possible, maybe even impossible, since there is no easy way to provide for him without putting an undue burden on the rest of the family. There are some things that I just cannot do these days. Spontaneity is constrained by the ever-present question of what any given action might mean for Aidan.
Sometimes I resent it. I feel deprived by his limitations, deprived of a typical father-son relationship, deprived of certain options in my own life.
And that is where Confucius comes in. I had some notion of what he stood for through my professional life as a college professor of Chinese politics. I knew he was criticized by many twentieth century Chinese intellectuals as a central cause of their country’s inability to modernize before the Communist revolution. He was a champion of age over youth, tradition over innovation and men over women, all of which have rendered him hopelessly uncool by contemporary standards in China and America. But I also knew that he believed that our search for accomplishment and meaning in life should begin with our relationships to those closest to us, our family and friends. Faced with my own family challenges, I went back and read him again.
He does reflect the cultural milieu of his times, one that devalued women and youth and progress. We have happily left many of those outmoded notions behind. Yet the thought of Confucius is capacious enough to allow for a more generous interpretation, one that can include under his prime category of “Humanity” those who were ignored in the past.
Confucius believes and teaches that ritual action is the glue that holds civilized society together. By “ritual” he means not only the grand commemorations of life’s defining moments – marriages, births, deaths – but also the meaningful symbolic gestures of everyday life. It is in the heartfelt fulfillment of our daily obligations to others that we fill ourselves with kindness and integrity. We need not search far and wide for happiness; it is to be found in our routinely respectful treatment of the people around us. That is Confucian ritual. While so much of our popular culture screams at us to satisfy our personal appetites in a deafening chorus of “me, me, me,” Confucius says that his “greatest ambition” is: "to comfort the old, to trust my friends, and to cherish the young."
In this way, Confucius bolsters me as I stand next to Aidan's bed. My morning washing of him is our ritual, a daily performance of our connection as father and son. I do the same thing every time: lay out the wash basin and soap; disconnect the tube that humidifies his tracheostomy through the night; take off his shirt; press the wash cloth to his face and onward down his body. I do it the same way, with deliberate and ingrained movement. It is not a grand ceremony, but a regular and concrete realization of our meaning and significance in the world.
I am not a perfect father, far from
it. But one benefit of ritual, according to Confucius, is that it forces us to
look into ourselves, to confront our faults and weaknesses, and find the best
way to move through our daily tasks. As I wash Aidan, I examine myself and the
words of the ancient philosopher are never far away: "As for Humanity: if
you want to make a stand, help others make a stand, and if you want to reach
your goal, help others reach their goal. Consider yourself and treat others
accordingly: this is the method of Humanity."
In pondering this sentiment, I can see that resentment toward Aidan’s condition is rooted in a selfishness, encouraged by the hyper-individualism and self-indulgence of our times, that turns me away from a more satisfying humanity. It is not about me, or him, individually, but about both of us together, recreating every day a vital and nourishing bond.
So, next time you hear that bad joke, think of us, Aidan and me, and our morning ablutions and what Confucius really says.