Saturday, February 27, 2021

Confucius Remarks on the Stages of Life

Lately, a notable passage of Confucius - found near the beginning of the Analects (in "Part 2" of a common editorial presentation in 20 parts) - has made a fresh and unexpected impression on me. For the sake of (over)simplification [cheap thinking?] I refer to this passage as his "remarks on the 'stages of life.'" 
Though I am for the most part decidedly not "caught up" with Confucius's indicated age-levels (no "perplexities" by age 40? seriously?), I am provoked by his characterization of the decade of life that I have nearly finished (having reached the age of 58 last month). It may touch on the peculiar struggles and challenges of this transition from "middle age" to "seniorhood." Here is the whole quotation, beginning with the age of 15:
"At fifteen I set my heart upon learning. 
"At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground. 
"At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities.
"At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven.
"At sixty, I heard them with a docile ear. 
"At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart;
for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right."

When I turned 50, I thought it was a big deal (read the post from 2013😉). I wasn't entirely wrong. It was supposed to be the age where people finally begin to get a vital, "naturally experiential" grasp of the larger perspectives of life. It's almost inevitable, because by age fifty we have lived a good chunk of life, and we finally start to "see" what our grandparents were always talking about (and what our parents may still be talking about).

Speaking as a philosopher, this might be what the Master is getting at when he says, "at fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven."

But it was not until age sixty, Confucius says, that he "heard them with a docile ear." It's one thing to start seeing what your life is all about, but another thing entirely to say "yes" to that understanding, to be at peace with how your life has worked out and what remains to aspire to (in terms of life in this world, with its relative concerns, which are real even if they are incomplete in themselves).

It is a challenge, emotionally and psychologically, to arrive at "docility" without veering off into cynicism and narrowing of the heart.

And how am I doing with all of this? Well, of course, the mercy of God in Jesus Christ brings a new and more radically hopeful dimension to everything, even our failures and weaknesses and disappointments. I am learning more and more how much I really depend on Christ's healing presence in my life.

Looking at things from the perspective of humanistic and psychological maturity (as well as the mysterious, deeper realities of life) proposed by Confucius, however, I would say that I have to develop a whole lot more docility in the next two years. I shall do my best...