After a long, cold winter, you’re anxious to get outside and enjoy the early spring sunshine. You call your dog and head to the neighborhood park for a long walk. After just a few minutes on the path, though, you started feeling fatigued and short of breath. You feel dizzy and break out into a cold sweat. You stumble toward the nearest bench to take a rest, but you collapse to the ground before you make it.
You’re unconscious, so you don’t realize it, but you’ve just experienced severe cardiac arrest. Without help, you’ll be dead in a few minutes. Whether or not you ever wake up depends on just one thing: does anyone around you remember how to administer CPR?
If you’ve ever taken CPR training, you’ll remember the strong emphasis on memorization. You learned mnemonics for remembering the steps to take and you drilled those steps multiple times to commit them to long-term memory. Rote memorization gets a bad rap in our society, but CPR instructors know better. They know that being able to apply what you’ve learned in the chaos and confusion of a real emergency depends on being able to remember it.
Ru have always placed a lot of emphasis on memorization, too, and for the same reason that CPR instructors do: if we have any hope of being able to apply moral teachings in real-life situations, we have to remember them.
Historically, this has involved a practice called “backing the book.” Starting at the age of 7, a boy would begin the laborious process of memorizing the Four Books. Once he could successfully recite them in their entirety, he repeated the practice for the Five Classics. Over the course of about six years, he would memorize almost a half-million characters. Only after he completed this feat would he be qualified for advanced study.
Fortunately, you don’t need to “back the book” to be a Ru. It is, however, helpful to commit some passages to memory so you’ll have them at hand when you need to apply them. We often have to make decisions in rushed and chaotic circumstances. When that happens, we don’t have the luxury of poring through books and deliberating at length on the right course of action.
Just as having the steps of CPR committed to memory can save a life in an emergency, having key moral teachings committed to memory and ready to deploy in an instant can benefit you and others.
A noble person clings to humaneness, even in times of rushing or crisis.”Confucius, Analects 4.5