My aunt is in a nursing home. It is not surprising; she is 75 and has a long history of medical problems. But it poses a difficult question for me: how much of my time each day is enough to fulfil my obligation for her care?
I am the person most responsible for her. She has no children. After a medical crisis three years ago, I stepped in to oversee her financial affairs: the sale of her house; her move to a new home; the balance of her bank accounts. My mother, her sister, died last year. My sister, who lives with her, cannot manage the demands of her medical troubles. There are no other immediate family members. It is left to me to say that she requires the constant attention provided by the nursing home; it is my determination that keeps her there.
So, almost every day, I take the short ride to the edge of town to sit with her. If the weather is good, I roll her wheelchair out to the sunlit porch. At meal-time, I help with her food. Sometimes I bring along a little snack: she especially likes the fresh cherries this time of year.
I stay only for about an hour. Then, I take my leave and return to my wife and daughter, my work at home and in the office.
On one level, I know that her being there is best for her but I worry that I may not be doing enough for her. How much of my time and care is sufficient?
It is questions and situations like this one that lead me back to Confucius.
Were she my mother, I know that Confucian ethics would demand more of me: caring for parents is traditionally the pre-eminent obligation. And not just going through the motions. Care must be motivated by genuine affection, as Confucius himself wrote: "These days, being a worthy child just means keeping parents well-fed. That's what we do for dogs and horses. Everyone can feed their parents - but without reverence, they may as well be feeding animals." (Analects 2.7).
Ouch. That hurts. Am I merely giving my aunt the kind of attention I give to my cat?
It is tempting to say to myself that, since she is not my mother, I do not owe her the level of commitment a parent is due but that does not get me off the Confucian hook. He would tell me that my duty carries over to respect for elders more generally; and the concrete family tie of aunt and nephew, especially in her current circumstances, demands a certain responsibility of me.
I am left, then, with my sense of inadequacy. Between my work and other family obligations, I cannot give more time to my aunt. It reminds me of how difficult it is to be a Confucian, which I do not pretend to be. For me, the ancient thinker is a provider of ethical ideas and suggestions, not an absolute arbiter of right and wrong.
In the end, I find myself returning to Zhuang Zi, who tells me that if I act unselfishly I will ultimately recognize the limits of what is possible: " if you forget about yourself and always do what circumstances require of you Then you do what you can, and whatever happens is fine."
We must care for our loved ones but, in doing so, we must also accept what we cannot do. Maybe that is enough.
Contact the author at email@example.com
Sam Crane teaches Chinese philosophy and politics at Williams College in Massachusetts, USA, and is the author of Aidan's Way.
(China Daily 07/20/2006 page15)