Saturday, April 26, 2008

Mike on the Fifth Commandment

I've always been impressed by the commandment's brevity. It says just enough to establish a behavioral standard, while remaining silent on less measurable matters, such as feelings. We're left to grapple with our feelings, even as we carry out the commandment.

Both of us know the familiar categories of love: brotherly love, erotic love and God-like (agape) love. The first requires that we grow to like each other. Eventually, "like" may develop into something deeper. Erotic love is biologically driven. Agape love is a matter of the will, of deciding to want and work toward the good for another. Feelings may well enter into the decision, but they are not a required prerequisite.

All that leads me to divide the question of observance from the matter of feelings. For example, you write "the Bible does command clearly isn't afraid of commanding emotions." Insofar as I can tell, the Bible commands agape, which may be exercised with or without the emotion we call love.

The commandment, I think, is addressed primarily to adults, loosely defined. In my experience, adults seldom are able to change their feelings by an act of will. Repeated actions, though, may do so. To take an almost silly example, the best way to overcome our fear of water is to get in the water and learn to swim. After a few years, we may find old feelings have dropped away. We may even transform into people who love the water. We do not do so by paying too much attention to our feelings but by paying careful attention first to staying afloat, then expanding our range to include actual swimming.

We agree that the ego cares only for iteself. I would add that it hates to have our attention diverted from itself. Honoring one's father and mother may well do so. The ego fights back, of course. Spiritual formation is tough, dirty work--not least because it usually starts a civil war inside us.

Humble tasks train us to resist runaway ego. Providing food, drink, shelter, clothing, transportation and the like is good for one's parents, but I suspect it's even more beneficial for us. It's the most commonly available "proving grounds" for learning how to get out of ourselves and do what is necessary to build community.

Back to you!


LCR said...

My first thought, as I read this commandment, is why should something that seems so natural and right need to be commanded. I am tempted to say that there is a natural desire, in most, to honor parents regardless of religious commandments. While in Rio I could not help but notice how people honored the elderly. There, honoring parents seemed to be culturally insired. On one level this commandment may be just an attempt at maintaining civility in community. However, it certainly goes beyond just civility.
Rami points out that the text does not define honor for us. Of course, it must include provision and protection but what about honor in terms of how we live our lives. The most valuable thing my father left me was his good name. While my parents were alive, caring for them was, for me, as natural as breathing. Now that they are deceased I do not see that this commandment is any less applicable to me. In fact, the struggles of obeying this commandment may be even greater now. I must now honor my parents by the way I choose to live my life.
Mike, you spoke of this commandment as a way to resist runaway ego. This commandment comes with a promise, or is it a reward. We are all familiar with B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. i.e. we are rewarded for good behavior and punished for bad. The ego driven person may very well adjust his behavior toward his parents because of the promised reward.
Mike or Rami, let me know if I am off base.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Rami. I will leave the Skinner discussion to you and Mike, but I did want to comment on your how you continue to honor your parents by the way you choose to live your life. I agree, of course, but I would add that we can expand the commandment to include not just our parents but parents in general, and the elderly beyond that.

Honoring parents would mean helping new parents learn the art of parenthood. When my son was born 30 years ago I had no idea how to be a father. I had my dad for a role model, but he wasn't trained either, and neither was his dad.

Just as we often urge engaged couples to seek counseling before marriage, maybe we should do the same with soon to be moms and dads. I can envision churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, etc. as wonderful places for people to learn how to parent, and how to discover parenting as a spiritual practice.

I will talk a bit more about this in the main body of our book.