05/09/2013 12:17 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

Confucian Thoughts on Aging

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We used to have our favorite Chinese restaurant in town. By we, I mean my spouse and I, our children and, when she was alive, my mother. Every couple of weeks it seemed we would make our pilgrimage to that spot of Chinese culinary delights for an evening meal. Of course the proprietors of the restaurant got to know us and it seemed we were almost always shown to the same table. If not the same table, the one constant was the same waiter, visit after visit. Within what seemed a very short amount of time our waiter began to address my mother as "grandma" and for the several years of these visits would greet her and wait on her as "grandma."

It is not difficult to picture the situation where the addressing of the senior member of the table as "grandma" would be taken as far less than the honorific that was intended. In fact, I can imagine a number of folks who would be insulted and even outraged and never patronize the restaurant again because of what they perceived as inappropriate and demeaning behavior on the part of the waiter to a member of their party.

To call my mother "grandma" however was the highest compliment that our waiter could have paid my mother. He was visibly and vocally honoring her for the role and status she bore in the family, a status that respected and honored her great age, at that time in her mid-90s.

As I myself soon approach another milestone in the aging process, retirement from 40 years of the professoriate in but a few days and a mere year left before I celebrate my 70th birthday, I think a lot about the age I am turning and how it is generally represented in the culture in which we reside. Are we honored for our increasing chronological numbers, that piling on of years, or is it more likely that we will be the brunt of the politically correct but highly derogatory phrase "chronologically challenged"? And often that is only the beginning of the jokes! That dementia can be the basis for humor is itself a rather sad comment about the values our society holds.

Really, however, the issue is not the jokes, but what the jokes represent as a far more pervasive attitude that has largely marginalized and defined the elderly out of any active role or participation in society. Rather than honoring them for all that they have given all their lives for their families and their society, there is a pervading sentiment that such folks are largely irrelevant and if anything, rather an inconvenience, if thought of at all. Society has passed them by. It is youth and youth alone that counts.

What a contrast to the simple honorific offered by our waiter to my mother: "Grandma!"

And as the proverbial question would have it, what does Confucius say?

The focus of the Confucian response is found largely in the importance placed upon the Confucian virtue, hsiao, filial piety -- a virtue that articulates the importance of the relation of parents and children. The character itself is the combination of the character for age and child, thus suggesting the relation of parent and child. Though suggesting to some a subservience of children to their parents, in its largest role its foundation rests with an honor and respect shown of age that is the cornerstone of virtually all of East Asia historically as well as today.

Thus we find Confucius commenting to his disciple Tzu-lu upon the meaning of filial piety and emphasizing that filial piety is a matter of honor and respect, not simply care and support.

The Master said, "The filial piety of nowadays means the support of one's parents. But dogs and horses are able to do something in the way of support; without reverence, what is there is distinguish the one support given from the other?" (Analects II:7: R. L. Taylor, Confucius, the Analects, p.51)

Even in his own time Confucius is suggesting that filial piety for most people means nothing more than providing basic care and support -- providing room and board if you will!

What is it then that would distinguish the filial piety of parent and child? Beyond care and support there is reverence, ching, the honor and respect due the relation of parent and child because it is the product of the love between parent and child.

There is a remarkable dimension of modernity to Confucius' comments. Is it not all too frequent that our exercise of "filial piety" might fulfill the basic requirements of care and support, but extend little further? The loved one is placed in assisted living and then in a nursing home. The bills are paid, but does the care extend further? Does the care reach the full respect of the name "loved one?" Where are the honor, respect and the love that should be the foundation of every human relation?

For me personally the issue we speak to is captured in a very simple but almost invisible way. It is represented by my knowing that anytime I get off an airplane at an East Asian destination, I will be treated with honor and respect and asked if I need assistance (perhaps it's the white beard!) rather than seen as a fumbling and bumbling "senior citizen," to use our society's euphemism!

In the end the issue is as simple as that wonderful honorific our waiter paid my mother: "Grandma." May we not only be so honored ourselves, but always honor others as well!