Loving Yourself is Loving Your Relationship With Others

This week I was lucky enough to hear a lecture from Prof. Roger T. Ames of the University of Hawaii on Confucian ethics. It was simply brilliant, and I will not attempt to provide any kind of prĂ©cis of his incredible paper here. For that you would be best served by getting a copy of Prof. Ames’ own translation of the Analects of Confucius, which I have just begun and am enjoying immensely. What I did want to do here was extend on one of his ideas, adapted from Confucian philosophy.

Statue of Confucius outside Confucius Temple, Nanjing, China

This was the idea that, despite Confucianism being seen by many to be a self-negating philosophy, there was a place for self-esteem, and even self love. In the Confucian framework, we love ourselves not as our selves, but as a great example of what it is that we are and do. We take pride in the roles we fulfil, and love the way in which we perform them. So we can genuinely and unashamedly love ourselves as a teacher, as a neighbour (indeed, as a blogger) if we are doing our best to fulfil that role ethically, compassionately and with scrupulous fairness. Loving yourself becomes loving your relationship with others.
Professor Ames pointed out that in the Confucian conception we are our roles and relationships – we live them, and it is our only reality. Disappointment and sadness arise from clinging too much to an ideal or principle that might be theoretically good, but can have no truth if it is not embodied in the way we interact with others. We are duty bound to improve ourselves in order, not to raise ourselves above our community, but to shift the standards of the community upward through our own good example. And while we are obliged to be respectful to our elders, we are also required, if necessary, to tactfully and privately remonstrate with them if their behaviour is in any way immoral.
But perhaps it is our digital lives that are helping us to understand the extent to which our supposed “individuality” is in fact defined by our relationships and networks. We are desperate to share our selves with friends and acquaintances through the media of Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, putting our best selves forward in an effort to be loved, celebrated and admired for our good taste, funniness or ironic brilliance. Tech commentator Tom Chatfield, in his brilliant book How to Thrive in the Digital Age, seems to be unknowingly promoting a Confucian view when he writes:

...we are the measures of each others’ success. Much like words, our individual identities have little meaning without context. We negotiate and renegotiate our selves constantly” (p. 138).

In the West we regularly experience crises of identity which Prof. Ames suggests are not at all common in the Confucian world. We struggle to work out what it is we are meant to do and what aspect of our lives we are meant to work on. P. M. Forni, in his classic work Choosing Civility, writes: 

Quite often we don’t know where to look for standards against which to measure our efforts to be good citizens of the world. In fact, the notion of standards itself has been growing more and more problematic” (p. 4). 

Problematic indeed. The quest for an ethical base makes up a large part of our adolescence and youth, and if we don’t find one, as happens for most, we simply abandon the quest and live on a shaky pedestal of arbitrarily self-defined prejudices and assumptions, constantly anxious about what it is we do and don’t know.
The Confucian system would elevate the welfare of the family as the supreme basis of all of our actions and decisions. A world view, no matter how principled, cannot damage or discount the happiness of our immediate relatives. If the family is happy then the individual is happy and, extended in the other direction, so is the state and the nation, and on into the universe.
So what are some practical ways we can develop this love of self through a Confucian emphasis on love for others? Here are some ideas of my own:

1.       Be Compassionate – even if we need to remonstrate with someone, do so in privacy and always with an eye to maintaining their dignity, as well as yours. We are too inclined to vent our own personal frustrations on others regardless of setting, timing or the presence of strangers. A large helping of forbearance coupled with a compassionate understanding of the struggles and frustrations of the other helps to remind us to be patient with ourselves for precisely the same reasons. All of us are struggling along this journey. Confucians, being great advocates of religious syncretism, would invoke the image here of Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of compassion and mercy.

Images of Kwan Yin at a Chinese temple in Kuala Lumpur

2.       Give yourself back to the community- many of us have enjoyed the benefits of an amazing education, but we frequently forget that, Higher Education Contribution Scheme or student loans aside, a great deal of that education was paid for by others through taxation and private bequest. Once we have cultivated any kind of specialised knowledge, we should begin to think of ways in which we can help our communities with that knowledge. It might be through tutoring kids who struggle, teaching adult education classes, lending our expertise to charities and non-profit groups. There are so many ways we can open up our networks and our knowledge to help others, if we give it a little consideration and creative thought. And of course, once we start teaching we begin to learn once again. 

3.       Understand something by living it – too frequently we restrict our interests and curiosities to reading books and surfing the net. But Confucius suggested that in order to truly understand something we must experience it first hand. We must develop a real-life relationship in order to adequately learn and understand. So don’t just Google those things that make you wonder. Visit the places, introduce yourself to the people, do what needs to be done. They grow from your interest and input, and you grow from this new experience and the development of new relationships. 

4.       Always be nice to your immediate family members – in my study of early etiquette books, one of the pieces of advice that was always stressed, and which always caused me to blush, was to exercise your best manners with those closest to you. Of course, we seem naturally inclined to do the opposite – we are nicest and most considerate with strangers, and we treat our partners, parents and siblings harshly and with impatience. Confucius said that we are obliged to extend to our family members as pleasant as possible an aspect, exercising towards them the maximum possible patience. We’re stuck with them, and through being genial we can learn valuable lessons about patience, unconditional love and our own capacity to accept others. 

5.       Occasionally, just do it the way it’s always been doneConfucianism is a profoundly conservative philosophy, and Confucius was convinced that, if we could only observe perfectly the existing rules and conventions, then we would perfect ourselves and society. The Buddha had a similar conviction. He said that if any monk could actually follow to the letter all of the rules laid down for him, he would be automatically enlightened. But of course we all know it is almost impossible. Part of what makes us human is our desire to chafe against the rules and regulations, to change things and stretch things. This is often for the common good, but, just occasionally, and particularly in times of great stress and change, it might help if we can just ask, “What has always been done in this situation?” There is a reason why the ceremonies for funerals and marriages, not to mention coronations, have remained largely unchanged for centuries. By following the customary we are relieving ourselves from unnecessary moral complexity. There is great comfort at times in cleaving to the familiar. And in the attempt to do so, we can learn a great deal about our history, our culture and our shared traditions and wisdom. We don’t always have to re-invent the wheel, and there is a great deal of class and grace about historical rituals.  


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