The Confucian Way
My wife Jody likes rocks. All kinds of rocks, small rocks to big rocks. Gravel to boulders. She loves to search for special rocks in creek beds where the flowing water has worn them smooth and brought out colors and nooks and crannies worn away by time and motion.
For years now, she’s coveted one such boulder that once just poked its head out of our road the way the iceberg did that proved fatal to the Titantic. For some reason animals would consistently leave an offering of scat on the tip. We didn’t look for any special significance in this kind of rock/animal totem, but you never know. When we had the road graded last year the fellow on the bulldozer upended this geologic beauty, scat remnants and all, and moved it to the side. Whenever we walked the dogs by it she would pause and imagine it in our yard about a mile away. This was just a dream, though, since it was way too heavy for us to move.
But giving new meaning to the idea that wishes can come true for those who are patient, Jody got her combined birthday-Christmas present yesterday. The crew chief digging the fiber optics line for our development plucked it up from its nest as though it were a feather and toted it up our driveway to its new position of prominence. He had told us earlier that he would be happy to transform his powerful John Deere excavator into a new UPS role to pick up the boulder and deliver it to us. So late yesterday afternoon when Jody was gone and it was only me and the dogs here to welcome him, Steve chugged his tracked excavator up the drive with the boulder hanging on for dear life.
Steve is not a particularly big man, but is powerfully built like his John Deere equipment. He is a congenial man with a bone-crunching handshake. He is also a skilled craftsman at his trade and has a lot of the artist in him. Without much ado he gently lowered the boulder down so anyone making the turn from the top of our drive will immediately see it dead ahead in their vision. At first we had to find where the weight was concentrated so it would stand up unassisted. A couple of tries later he gave it a slight bounce when it touched the ground to make an indent giving it a firm footing.
At first he wouldn’t let me give him anything in return, but I finally coaxed him into accepting a six-pack of some of my craft beer that I had brewed earlier in the year. Even this small gift made him a tad uncomfortable, but he said he would savor it. He was just happy to have been able to do us this favor.
This morning as I was pouring over the material for a final exam in my current Chinese philosophy class, I was reminded of the module on Confucius. In the discussion of some of the distinctions between practicing any of the various virtues that Confucius cultivated and developing a crafts skill such as playing beautiful music or creating pleasing shapes in wood or clay, I was able to see Steve in a new light.
Our latest class work picks up on a Confucian take on the skills required to make a beautiful product such as a bowl or to perform at the highest level during a piano recital or to compete in a world-class chess match. Although Confucius can admire all that comes from various refined skills, he always focuses on the internal frame of mind of the artist who makes the product, plays the music, moves the chess pieces. Confucius is ultimately interested in creating and developing what he calls the “ren” individual, the “Good” person. In his scheme of things, he finds ritual the key to becoming this “ren” or virtuous individual. Getting there is not easy, though, since this person must be cultivated by an awareness of what is important. What is at the core of this pursuit is an innate sense of not just listening to one’s higher angels but acting automatically in pursuit of a way of life that is responsible and beneficial to others.
The goal in turning beautiful bowls or playing rapturous music is thus not just to produce an esthetically beautiful object or show off the skill necessary to perform at the highest level. The inner person must be connected to the end product so that the two are linked in an inseparable way. The Confucian model individual needs to be informed, not a person who does something by rote. We cannot just be going through the motions. We must be involved with what we are doing on all levels. When this happens, when we are in an effortless flow, we are on the way to becoming “ren” people, living meaningful lives and staying engaged in what is important.
Since products stand on their own merit—a beautiful bowl is a beautiful bowl in itself, a moving piano performance can touch the soul—we can only hope that the artist is also tapping into their deeper convictions and is sincere, not just venal, egotistical or hollow. We hope the pianist who moves us to tears is as connected emotionally with the music as we are and not thinking as she plays flawlessly of what’s for supper later that night or counting the heads in the audience to calculate what size profit she’s brought into the symphony hall.
We trust that all skilled artisans, from the ones who work in wood and clay, to those who play music, paint, cut glass, weave fabric, bend iron, dance, write poetry, sing, and act on stage have that strong inner sense of self-worth that serves themselves and all the rest of us so well. And lest I forget, I add to that list those men and women who work daily with their hands for a living. Included in these good souls is at least one heavy-equipment excavator running his John Deere, tapping into the basis of a greater ethos that ultimately links us all together as responsible and sharing human beings.
So I will continue to think of Steve who’s probably never heard of Confucius or ever gives much thought about the distinctions between his craft skills at running his excavator and the inner person he is when he volunteers to do a random act of kindness for a stranger. He seems to have been born with an inner Confucian core. I would like to think that he has built upon that core and has no disconnect between his skills and his virtue. Confucius would definitely think highly of him and never suspect him of being a counterfeit.
- Image: the photo is by the author, David Evans.