59. Would you rather make your grandmother or granddaughter proud?

I refreshed myself this morning on a concept that I studied as a teenager.

  • The Romans considered duty to one’s parents and ancestors as a great virtue. Aeneas, Rome’s founding father, personified the virtue of pietas — or filial piety. On a number of occasions, Aeneas made decisions that were counter to his personal desires in order to fulfill his duties to his ancestors.
  • The Chinese are pretty big on filial piety (孝, xiào) too. And have been for a long time. It is virtuous to be good to your parents and take care of them and do them proud. Confucius is credited with initiating this philosophy at about the same time as Aeneas was (allegedly) fleeing Troy to found Rome.
Aeneas portrayed carrying his father (the guy with the white hair!) out of Troy.

Americans, on the other hand, have long been committed to doing well by generations still to come. It is virtuous in American culture to set your children and grandchildren up for success. That, in large part, is how we conceptualize progress.

With an aging population, with debates around Social Security, with an incredible two centuries of progress behind us, it seems natural for Americans, especially young Americans, to think about where we stand on this spectrum.

The benefit of a forward-looking, do-well-by-your-children-first mindset is the patience it can inspire and the investment it can justify. The benefit of a backward-looking, do-your-parents-proud-above-all-else mindset is that it encourages you to be thoughtful about all the sacrifices people have made in the past. Those thoughts can, in turn, inspire you to make similar sacrifices.

No matter which side you come down on though, one thread is common to both philosophies: prioritize another generation over your own.

Note to reader: This is day 59 of 92 in my commitment to write for 30 minutes each day from October 1 through the end of 2015. Previous posts can be found here.