“Might we not say that filial piety and respect for elders constitute the root of Goodness.”
Confucius, The Analects
The alienation between young and old is at times palpable. It’s not usually open disdain or hostility. Rather there is a real disconnect, as each group is at a loss about how to relate to the other.
One naturally wonders what might be done. From a purely practical viewpoint, it seems that whatever is to be done will have to start with adults. But I for one have often been discouraged on this point, thinking: what can I do about how most young people have no habits, or even have bad habits, of interacting with elders?
Well, we must start somewhere. And neither Confucius nor anyone I know in the Western tradition seems to think that respect for elders magically appears in youth. There is something natural about filial piety and respect for elders, but what is natural still often requires cultivation—especially by those who know and exemplify what they are cultivating.
It seems that one root of the importance of piety and respect for elders is that we are all on the same project, striving for the same great goal, and elders are further along in it.
Now if the answer is not that elders simply insist upon receiving respect, they still might act in certain ways so as better to encourage and elicit it. Perhaps adults/elders might do the following toward youth:
1. Act as though we are in this together. We are hard at work in achieving what we are all called to be. We are not competitors, but rather we have a deep interest in your success in the arduous endeavor of being a good human being.
2. Act as though we have something we want to share. Rather than playing the aloof elder who simply expects deference, we might be forthcoming with gentle and winning mentoring, advice, and especially encouragement.
3. Pattern for them the very respect they should have. We all have elders. There is much we can do to live out piety and respect of our own parents and elders, as difficult as that might be. Surely, this will be noticed.
To re-connect the ties that have been broken will take a holistic approach. It will require that we adults/elders step up and reach out in our daily interactions with youth. The best place to start is always with the things that are in my own power to do, for the good of all of us.
Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was a Chinese philosopher whose moral teachings have had an immense impact on both Asian and non-Asian peoples. The Analects is the major source of his teachings.
Image: an old fisherman.
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