Confucius was frequently challenged by pragmatists of the “time-is-money” variety as to the wastefulness of ritual. These challengers were not necessarily shallow materialists obsessed with profit; some, like the followers of the utilitarian Mozi, considered ritual a distraction from important activities like feeding the poor and takng care of the sick. Here, even a close disciple, the rhetorician Zai Wo, proposes shortening the three-year mourning period for a parent to one year, because it would be “enough”:
Zai Wo asked: “Isn’t the three-year mourning period [for parents] too long? If the [junzi] does not exercise ritual for three years, the rituals will certainly deteriorate; if music is not played for three years, it will certainly vitiate. Last year’s grain is already gone, this years’ grain has already sprouted. And the seasonal cycle for the use of wood for producing fire by friction has already passed through. One year is enough. ” Confucius said, “Are you comfortable with eating good rice and wearing fine silk [soon after your parents have died]?” “Yes, I am fine with it.” “If you are OK with it, then go ahead and do it. When the [junzi] is in mourning, he cannot enjoy the taste of delicious food, cannot enjoy the sound of music, and cannot be comfortable in his own home, and therefore he won’t do such a thing. Now, if you are comfortable with it, then do it.” Zai Wo left. Confucius said, “How inhumane Zai Wo is! It is only after three years that a child [leaves] his parent’s embrace. The three-year period of mourning is observed throughout society. Wasn’t Zai Wo loved three years by his parents?” (Analects 17.19, tr. A. Charles Muller)
“If you are OK with it, then go ahead and do it”: Confucius’ reply is brutally sarcastic, but it reveals that the three-year mourning period is not an abstract prescription but a sensitive formalization of real feeling. When a parent dies, is it not a fact that the actual period of mourning lasts a few years? There are the feeling of loss and grief, the longing, the memories of early life together and thoughts of gratitude — but also the feelings of injury, resentment, misunderstandings? — because parents and children spend many years hurting each other and leaving lifelong scars. All these constitute mourning for a parent, because the parental impact on our lives is primal and complex. Even when we live in a society where we have to be functional again after a few weeks, is it not the case that underneath the functionality we feel our mourning like an undertow that carries with it all our daily interactions? Our own society would function better if it could be more open to mourning and make room for it in our working lives.
Mourning for a parent is also bound up with the knowledge that we are now next in line for death; the main barrier between us and death has fallen. After a parent’s death, a sensitive person finds himself in terra incognita, not sure of who he is any more and where life is taking him. Because of this, most people find themselves speechless after the loss of a parent, and the ability to talk about it comes with time and guidance. With all these thoughts pressing on us, how could we simply find satisfaction in the usual sensory comforts? The rituals of mourning unite us with all those billions of people who have undergone the same mysterious event, and gives us meaningful words and actions to guide us through our perplexity. If they are good rituals, they are built upon a deep understanding of what mourning is, and of its natural course — for all rituals presuppose a course in our feelings that needs to be acknowledged and moved through.
If Zai Wo does not have these feelings, then the three-year mourning ritual would indeed be nothing more than an imposition — in which case it seems right to advise him not to pretend, and to go ahead and shorten the period. Confucius thinks that this shows a deficiency in Zai Wo’s humanity — for how could a person fully experience being human if he simply doesn’t feel very much about a parent’s death, if he only has one year’s worth of emotions and thoughts to work through? Are his other relationships even shallower than this? Zai Wo strikes me as being clever but callow, someone with a quick mind who isn’t “there” yet. If he were to lose a parent now, such a person usually finds himself hit harder than most of us — because now he is forced onto a level of human existence that he has spent his life avoiding. For such a person, the markers and signposts of ritual are especially beneficial, because they show him how to be by giving him words and actions that he never suspected he would be needing. And in life’s major passages, do we not always discover ourselves saying and doing things that we never imagined we would say or do?