My father-in-law died last week. In his last few days I sat with him as he struggled to hold on to his pride as congestive heart failure brought him low. His respirations eventually settled into a slow and steady pace, consiousness slipped away. I wasn't there when he drew his very last breath, I walked in a moment too late, but then, at that instant, I could see that he had found the peace he sought.
I learned a lot from him, though he was not a conventional teacher. In fact, he would have scoffed, in his rough Brooklyn manner, if anyone had ever accused him of being a teacher. No, he saw himself as a worker. That was what he had done all his life. The highest compliment he would pay to a person, and he did so only sparingly, was to say: "he's a good worker." That meant you did your job, you didn't complain, you didn't slack off or try to finagle your way out. You just worked and kept at it. And you worked to take care of your family.
That was the key to his life: family. He would do, without hesitation, whatever was required to serve his family. Second eldest of fifteen children, a sprawling Brooklyn-Staten Island family, he was absolutely faithful to his parents. When his father called, perhaps to round up a few of his ten sons to do some sort of work, Reg would respond, without question, because that was what a son was supposed to do when a father called. He cared for his wife and daughters dutifully, working various jobs, all unforgiving manual labor, to make sure they had the comforts of home. He built a middle class American life for them without benefit of a high school diploma through his diligence and constancy.
He knew tragedy and heartbreak. One of his daughters died young, robbing him of part of his reason for being. But he kept on, knowing that other family duties still had to be fulfilled. When his grandson, my son, Aidan, was diagnosed with profound disabilities, he absorbed the deep disappointment but did not falter. He cared for Aidan devotedly, loved him unconditionally. In recent years, as his wife sunk into Alzheimer’s Disease, he stayed by her, sat with her, looked after her. However frustrated he might have been at times, he did not walk away.
Like all of us, he had his faults. He could be intolerant and impatient. But what shines so brightly from his life is his dedication to those closest to him and his determination to carry out his family obligations.
For me, thinking about this hard-working and dedicated man, he demonstrates the universality of certain values, values that, in my own line of work, are sometimes associated most closely with Confucianism. Reg was not a Confucian. Quite to the contrary, he would no doubt have had some choice words for me if I had ever suggested this association. Yet in his love and commitment to his family he embodied central principles of Confucianism.
The noble-minded cultivate roots. When roots are secure, the Way is born. To honor parents and elders - isn't that the root of Humanity?
Reg very much personified the spirit of that excerpt from Analects 1.2. He certainly honored his parents. He cultivated the roots of family and created and reproduced humanity there. He cared for his wife and children and grandchildren, and in that care demonstrated his noble-mindedness. No one had to tell hm to do these things; he knew in his heart what he had to do. He was, in a sense, born with an extraordinary moral acuity.
Confucius said: "To be born enlightened: that is highest. To study and so become enlightened: that is the next. To feel trapped and so study: that is third. To feel trapped and never study: that is the level of the common people, the lowest level." (Analects 16.9)
By "enlightened" Confucius here means morally aware. Most people have to learn to be good; they have to study morality to fashion a good life. Some people resist moral learning and fail to cultivate sufficiently their humanity - that is what Confucius means by "common people" in the passage above. But some - few, perhaps - are born with a powerful, instinctual sense of family duty. Not only do they know what should be done, but they have the clarity of mind and heart to follow through and do it. That was Reg. He was enlightened in that sense. He knew what he had to do for his family and he never hesitated in doing it.
He was not perfect, of course. He could be abrasive at times. His foucs on his familial obligations could some times blind him to the needs of others. But from the perspetive of filiality and family, he was exemplary. I learned much from him.