What Westerners can learn from Eastern philosophy: Filial Piety.

Americans often look down on other cultures, such as middle-eastern cultures that force women to wear something over their hair and/or face while in public. We think it is demeaning to women. It certainly seems a little demeaning to me. I couldn’t dream of that being enforced as a law in America. But have you ever wondered, what American’s do that other cultures think is just wrong? What about us makes them cringe?

During my time in Taiwan I taught regular English classes. Once when I was teaching English class, we were discussing Chinese and American culture. I learned that to the Taiwanese, one of the most abhorrent things we accept in our culture is the prevalence of nursing homes. It makes them sick to think about it. You may think this funny, but listen to my limited understanding of their reasoning. Your parents gave you life, they feed you for years and gave the best of themselves to you. When they get old, how could you in return, send them away from their home, away from friends, and away from you, to a place where those who take care of them don’t do it for love, but for money? In Confucian influenced cultures there is a deep belief in filial piety, meaning  respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. Due to this belief, grandparents often live in their children’s homes and are taken care of by their own children as they age. So that is the norm in China.

Confucius said “Nowadays filial piety means being able to feed your parents. But everyone does this for even horses and dogs. Without respect, what’s the difference?” This quote sheds more light on why nursing homes are looked down upon by the Chinese. According to Confucius, sending your parents to a place where their needs will be taken care of, but the love and respect they deserve is absent, is treating them like animals. It is paying to get rid of your responsibility to return the favor that your parents gave you in your childhood.  Admittedly, most people after sending their parents to a nursing home don’t just ignore them, but visit them weekly, where they hug, then chat for an hour. After which they get on with their parent-free life.  

There are many rationalizations that people make when they send their parents to a nursing home, such as “It would be nice for them to be with people of similar age, that way they could then connect easier with others.” Or “It is where they want to be, because they wouldn’t want to be a burden on any one of their children.” Or even “We don’t have the expertise needed to take care of them.”  But let me ask you, how many elderly people, no matter their age, say, “You know, I think it is time for me to move into a nursing home, that is where I want to be.” I don’t know of any.

Yet we still herd them off to a place fairly cut off from society, and they adapt, and over time tend to find happiness in their new home. Just as many Middle Eastern women are happy with their lifestyles. Yet does that excuse our decision, that we don’t have time, energy or expertise enough to deal with taking care of them?  Even if you can honestly answer that you don’t have time, energy, or expertise. I bet they could have given the same answers about you when they gave you birth. You can learn how to take care of them, as they learned how to take care of you.

Now that is enough slamming on nursing homes. I don’t think that they are actually evil places. Nursing homes provide plenty of benefits to the economy, the family and even the elderly that I have not discussed. The purpose of this article is not to convince people that nursing homes are evil place. The purpose is to help people see the lack of filial piety in our nation, and hopefully to convince them that we could do with some more. One of the causes of our lack in filial piety is, in America we view age as undesirable. One example can be seen in a popular party game in America, called Cards Against Humanity, where there is a card that says “Seeing your grandma naked.” which when played everyone playing generally cringes at the thought. What could be more scarring than seeing your grandma naked? Well, I was in Korea with my brother and parents this last month, and while there we attended a bath house. While in the bath house the genders are separated because everyone is completely nude, and all ages attend it. I saw many naked grandpa’s.

Mom told us how she saw a child washing her mother’s back, while that mother was washing her mother’s back. Seeing your grandma naked in Korea wouldn’t be scarring or shocking in the least. It is apart of life. Confucius said “Are not filial piety and obedience to elders fundamental to the enactment of humaneness?” In Confucian cultures, children are more exposed to what life/age has in store, and at the same time they also are loved and taught by their grandparents. Thus they learn to respect and talk with different generations, and they learn that many of the “old ways” have good reasoning behind them. They learn how to be humane.

Whereas in America youth is idealized, the magazine covers are filled with nearly naked photo-shopped bodies, with no blemishes, folds, fat, or wrinkles. The people we look to as the image of success aren’t those who after a long life of hard work have become wealthy (a realistic goal), but the youthful billionaires like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Out with the old and in with the new, is a common saying used, and admittedly has its place. I am glad the old racism isn’t socially acceptable anymore (not that it is non-existent by any means as current events have shown so glaringly).

I have talked to elderly women who have said racist remarks, I was shocked that they would adhere to such beliefs. However them having this “defect” of a belief doesn’t mean that we can treat them like a broken toy, and toss them out with all the other defects. I have learned some of the greatest life lessons on love, and hard work from those same “racist” elderly women, and I am grateful to consider them dear friends. Growing old is part of life, and although there are many things about it that no one looks forward to, or finds beautiful, there is something beautiful about age.

Some of the finer things in life like cheese, champagne, antiques, and art grow in value as they age. Humans are the finest part of life. As they age, they grow in value, for age is often proportional to experience and wisdom. Much of which can be passed on. If we are ever going to truly progress as humanity, we will first need to respect, honor, and learn from previous generations. For as Confucius said of the righteous, “Through filial piety, they correctly passed down the wills of their forefathers and correctly transmitted their works.” If we can inculcate the ancient Confucian value of filial piety as an American value, I believe we would progress much faster and be a much stronger society because we are taking good care of our roots.  And as Confucius said “A good man regards the root; he fixes the root, and all else flows out of it. The root is filial piety; the fruit brotherly love.”

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