Saturday, October 26, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Aging Parents, Friends or Obligations?

Contrast the conclusions of Jane English and Lin Yutang concerning the parent grown child relationship.

Lynn Yutang takes the basic Eastern position that since our parents gave us life, our character, our values, and our upbringing, we owe them literally everything that we have. He regards the American attitude which often leads to the neglect of the elderly as a cultural sickness. Even we find ourselves disturbed at this attitude. It's even a matter of endless jokes. You only need to look at how Homer treats his father in The Simpsons to see the potential problems.

Jane English acknowledges that we should not go to such extremes of neglect as abandoning our elderly in nursing homes, but says that the relationship between parent to adult child should be one of friendship. She believes that children should not feel that they owe their parents anything but instead should cultivate a friendship with them. The difference here is that in a friendship there is a sense of mutuality, which is to say each gives to the other what is needed. She differentiates this from reciprocity in which there is a sense of I gave to you and you must now give back to me.

I find the differentiation technical at best, not really very meaningful at worst. I may not give you back exactly what you gave me as in repaying a debt but reciprocity as a concept should include what English defines as mutuality. Whether debts are specifically paid or people simply reinforce the relationship by helping each other meet various needs, the relationship is still reciprocal.

Yutang's position is based on ancient Confucian beliefs. It is important to remember that all of ancient and modern Chinese history is rooted in the concept of stability. The function of the state is to provide stability. The function of the family is provide stability. Westerners acknowledge the importance of stability but they do not make it their primary focus, preferring instead to focus on such concepts as fulfilling the individual's potential and freedom.

Being a Westerner it's not surprising I think that Yutang goes too far. The idea that your duty is to your parents is above everything else ignores the importance of such matters as taking care of your children. On the other hand, English's idea that you owe your parents nothing except an attempt to cultivate friendship with them is obviously too far on the other extreme.

Family relationships are lifelong relationships. There's a necessity for mutual support throughout life. The duties grown children have for their parents are essentially the same as in any family relationship -- to provide as adequately as you can to meet their needs within the framework of meeting the needs of the entire family. To me that seems a simple and direct concept.

Both my brother and I were extremely alienated from my mother. I won't go into the reasons, but the fact is that there was no way either of us could have been friends with her. Nevertheless, because I lived in a town very close to hers, I felt it was my obligation to check in on her from time to time and see that her needs were being met, insofar as they could be. My brother was a further distance away, but whenever she had a need that required monetary assistance, I contacted him and he and I dealt with the matter together. This was not done out of friendship, but duty and obligation.

I see English's attitude as an ideal, but I see the question of family duty as an essential minimum.

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