04/17/2013 01:23 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

Sitting By a Friend: Confucius on Tragedy

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In a selection from the Confucian Analects usually discussed as a description of Confucius' personality and character, there stands a very short passage (Analects VII: 9) that tells us a good deal about his feelings for others in times of tragedy and how he expresses such feelings. What better response to the tragedy of Boston that engulfs us all.

"When the Master was eating by the side of a mourner, he never ate to the full" (R. L. Taylor, Confucius, the Analects, p. 9).

A simple passage and an equally simple message. Out of respect for the person who is experiencing tragedy and suffering in their life, Confucius demonstrates his sympathy with that person's condition and situation by showing his own restraint in his conduct at a shared meal. To satiate himself with food and drink at such a time would merely demonstrate the degree to which he understood little of his fellow diner's distress and illustrate all too well vey little feeling for his fellow diner.

While the circumstances of the passage call our attention to a very particular situation -- that of mourning and of a meal with a person in mourning, by extension the passage suggests a foundation for a broad response to the suffering of others in situations too numerous to name or number.

The response suggested in this passage is merely one ramification of a broader feeling of Confucius for others that underlies all of his teachings. Let's probe more deeply into the Analects to understand this broader context of feelings for others.

One of the most central passages of Confucius' teachings that permits us to understand his feelings toward others and the centrality of this teaching to all of his teachings is Analects XV:23:

Tzu-kung asked, "Is there not one word that may serve as a rule of practice for all of one's life?" The Master said, "Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." (R. L. Taylor, Confucius, the Analects, p. 109)

Several passages in the Analects speak to the question Confucius' disciple Tzu-kung raises. The Master has many teachings. Is there not some quintessential teaching in the midst of the plethora of words and discussions?

The answer from Confucius is direct and to the point. Yes, there is, in fact, a single word that covers the breadth of all the teachings Confucius articulates. That word is "reciprocity," the feelings and resulting actions toward others.

Let's look more closely at this word "reciprocity," shu. Chinese characters are more often than not composed of units, other characters, that when combined produce a meaning that approaches the translation we assign to the given character. In the case of the character shu, reciprocity, we have a character that is composed of two simpler characters and it is in their combination that we begin to understand something of this word we translate as reciprocity. The top of the character shu is a character pronounced ju, meaning "like" or "similar." The bottom of the character shu is a character pronounced hsin, meaning "heart" or "mind." Thus the character shu, reciprocity, is the combination of the characters "like" and "mind," to use two of the definitions.

How do we get from our words for "like" and "mind" to the word and the translation of shu as "reciprocity"? Quite simply actually. Combining them together we get something like "like-mindedness." Still, the word we are after is reciprocity, but it is now close. To be of "like-mind" means to be able to identify with another's situation -- to be able to share in and understand the other's situation. If the other's situation is good then there is in shared joy in that situation -- joy for the sake of the other person.

If, on the other hand, the other's situation is less than good and in fact is filled with suffering, then there is response on the basis of understanding the other's plight and recognizing that one has a moral responsibility to respond to it. The like-mindedness is the capacity to put oneself in the situation of the other and thus understand completely and fully that situation of the other

Such response to the situation of the other, particularly the plight and suffering of the other is marked by the common translation of shu as reciprocity. The question that persists, however, is whether reciprocity is actually the best word to describe what is essentially a feeling of other's pain and on the basis of that feeling, a reaching out to address their distress. One of the translations of shu that sometimes appears is "sympathy" the capacity to "sympathize" with the other's distress. The problem with the word sympathy is that it often suggests a certain level of condescension in the relation of one to the other. There is, however, a word that truly expresses "like-mindedness" and its capacity for reaching and responding to the feelings of others - that word is empathy.

Shu as the quintessential teaching of Confucius is best understood as the expression of empathy for the feelings of others.

And how does one act on this empathy"? In a statement predating the biblical reference to the Golden Rule, Confucius articulates the most basic of ethical maxims -- perhaps the true universal ethic. In his words: "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." Here truly the feelings of others are addressed!

May we take these words to heart and in our own small ways practice the empathy, the true care for others, the world so desperately needs in this hour.