Today is Aidan's fifteenth birthday. I thought about saying "would have been" his fifteenth birthday, but I will keep it in the present tense. He continues to be a presence in my life, even in his absence, and thus he is still here with me. It is his birthday today.
As it happens, I am writing a paper that I will present in Beijing at the end of the month. It is about the impossibility of Confucian nationalism. This work has brought me to a re-reading of Hall and Ames's marvelous book, Thinking Through Confucius. The text, a fairly deep explication of the central themes of Confucius's thinking in the Analects, is organized around a famous passage (2.4):
The Master said: "At fifteen I devoted myself to learning, and at thirty stood firm. At forty I had no doubts, and at fifty understood the Mandate of Heaven. At sixty I listened in effortless accord. And at seventy I followed the mind's passing fancies without overstepping any bounds."
This gets at the heart of Confucian moral improvement. It is not automatic; quite to the contrary, to achieve what is possible at each decade, one has to constantly attend to the fulfillment of social duties. It's hard to be a good Confucian.
I mention it here today because of its starting point: "At fifteen..." In a physical sense, Aidan did not get to fifteen. And that might lead some to question whether he can have any real moral accomplishments. But he has, and he will continue. His achievements are not about his own character and integrity. His successes are those he has inspired in others. I can certainly say for myself, while I may be far from the Confucian ideal, I am a better person for having him in my life. He taught me how to let go of what I thought was important and concentrate on cultivating my closest loving relationships. He allowed me to see my wife and daughter and family in a different light. He opened up for me a new and enriching perspective on the world.
As one who is on the cusp of possibly understanding the Mandate of Heaven, I can say with confidence that he is ahead of me, giving his heart-and-mind free rein without overstepping any bounds.