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Managing Vulnerability Through Ritual: A Q&A With Dr. Michael Ing

Cultivating Our Co-Humanity

March 10, 2016 • By Michael Ing Cultivating Our Co-Humanity

“Imagine you suddenly see a young child about to fall into a well,” explains a 3rd century BCE Confucian text called the Mengzi. Before reflecting on whether or not you even like the child, the text explains, most people would have a “pang in their heart”—a feeling of “alarm and commiseration.” According to the author of the Mengzi, this demonstrates that human beings are deeply interconnected. It demonstrates the initial tendencies of a virtue called ren 仁.

Ren 仁 is a central concept in Confucian thought. The Chinese character is comprised of two parts: the character for “person” (ren 人) on the left and the character for “two” (er 二) on the right. Ren 仁 can be explained as the connection between two (or more) people, and scholars often translate it as “humaneness,” “human-heartedness,” or even “co-humanity.” Many Confucian texts discuss ren 仁 as a defining characteristic of human beings, playing on the semantic relationship between the characters for “humaneness” and “person,” which are pronounced the same.

Some Confucian texts define ren 仁in terms of another concept called ai 愛, which can be translated as “love” or “care.” Ren 仁, in this light, is a sensitivity to the ways in which we ought to care for each other. Following the Mengzi’s line of thought, ren 仁is visible in our reactions to the needs of others—in parents, for instance, caring for their children or in grown children caring for their aged parents.

Several of us involved in The Enhancing Life Project are working on the concept of vulnerability. I am exploring it from a Confucian perspective. I believe that Confucianism contributes to the conversation in several unique ways. For instance, Confucian thinkers stress a communal and interconnected notion of the self, which renders human beings particularly vulnerable to each other, as the passerby is vulnerable to caring about the child in danger at the well. Roger Ames, a contemporary scholar of Confucianism, explains, “To begin with, we are not separate ‘I’ entities that then come into ‘we’ relationships. As relationally constituted persons, ‘we’ is the starting point, and we grow our lives significantly only through the extension and amplification of those relations that we already share as mother and wife and neighbor.”

Our connections to each other are not only understood as roles we perform. The body itself, from a Confucian perspective, is a connection we have to each other. This is because the physical body is understood as being comprised of the same stuff (qi 氣) that comprises all things in the world. Our bodies, in this light, are continuous with other people and other things, rather than isolated from them. Another contemporary scholar, Tu Weiming, explains, “The body, so conceived, is not a static structure to be observed, dissected, and analyzed as an object but should be seen as more akin to energy fields. It is like a moving stream rather than an island. The body made of qi 氣 is an open system, encountering, enduring, engendering, and transforming.” In this sense, the body is a vulnerable entity, open and receptive to other entities in the world.

Human beings, in this view, are not just causally interdependent in that the things we do impact the lives of others, but we are ontologically interdependent in that we share in the same qi 氣 that makes us who we are. To be human is to be enmeshed in relationships where we are quite literally constituted by—and vulnerable to—others. As such, vulnerability helps shape our identities as humans.

Because of this, Confucians strive to create the conditions of optimal vulnerability through a program of training referred to as li 禮 (usually translated as “ritual”). These are a robust series of practices aimed to encourage or limit vulnerability as appropriate. Mourning rites in a Confucian context, for instance, are created to ensure that the feelings we experience at the death of significant others is neither protracted nor insufficient. (For more on how mourning rites simultaneously express and limit vulnerability, see my recent Q&A.) Children mourn for their parents through a more robust series of rites than friends mourn for friends. These rites work to stir up the memories that the living shared with the deceased and to help the mourner transition into a new relationship where the deceased no longer performs the same role he or she performed while alive.

Ritual provides the means of cultivating optimal vulnerability by ensuring that we remain open to others as long as they appropriately perform their roles. It works to limit our sensitivities when they are excessive, and to encourage them when they become deficient. As Tu Weiming explains, “[Ritual] points to a concrete way whereby one enters into communion with others…. [It] is understood as a movement leading toward an authentic relationship.” Ritual enables genuine relationships by managing vulnerability, where “management” is understood not as eliminating vulnerability, but rather as ensuring its appropriateness for any context.

Read a Q&A with Michael Ing about his research here.

Photo courtesy of Rover4 via Flickr.