One holiday season, I was perusing the bookstore shelves for a gift for a friend when my eye fell on just the thing: a book on an author we both liked. I reached for the volume—then suddenly stopped mid-air. If I gave her this book and she read it, I thought, she’d know more about this writer than I did—and the thought rankled. I felt horrible about being so competitive with my friend and, for a few minutes, inwardly battled my selfishness—but it won, and I didn’t get the book.
What was going on in me was an instance of the fight that’s gone on in everyone. “History,” wrote Eli Siegel, “consists largely of man’s attempts to acquire what he sees as justice for himself with the rather clever desire of not giving it to another.” But trying cleverly to care for ourselves this way, through contempt for what other people are and deserve, derails us from our deepest purpose. We need, Aesthetic Realism shows, to feel sincerely: “I’m taking care of me!” by trying to be just to others.
What I’ve learned on this crucial subject has given me a happy, richly useful life and a greater desire to be just other people. This includes the thousands of students I taught for nearly 30 years as a high school English teacher, using the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
How does the fight begin?
As a child, I had two completely different notions of how to care for myself. I liked learning about words and language, and also science. I remember the thrill of seeing, in Miss Polisi’s first grade class at Brooklyn’s PS 104, how letters grouped into words joined to make sentences, and, printed in black and white on a page, told a story. And I was enthralled watching Don Herbert—known as “Mr. Wizard”—on tv with my father, who’d then help me carefully replicate some of the experiments he did.
But this same father, Barney Rosen, also confused me. He could be explosively angry—so different from the man who could dance jauntily in the kitchen with my mother to a song on the radio. Who was this man? And who was my mother? Was Edith Rosen the woman who was sarcastic and, I thought, preferred my younger sister to me, or the one who liked to help people and struck up friendly conversations with everyone? I felt my parents stood for a confusing, unpredictable and vulgar world. Wanting be as different from them as possible, I cultivated a placid demeanor, unperturbed and aloof.
Though I loved language, I didn’t speak much unless absolutely necessary. When people called me a snob, I was shocked and offended: I was just protecting myself and my dignity. If I put myself out there, I felt, I’d make a fool of myself, as I thought my mother did; people would make fun of me, and that I couldn’t bear. I felt most people were unworthy of me, and also that they were against me, ready to pounce on my flaws. I was to learn years later that—because the self is deeply ethical—I punished myself for seeing people in this unjust way by feeling lonely and increasingly hopeless about ever being close to anyone. Contempt, wrote Mr. Siegel in Self and World, “is that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker.”
I did feel consciously bad about how I saw my father, and said in my first Aesthetic Realism consultation I felt I owed it to him to try to understand him. When I said scornfully that he was a “dreamer,” and also that he cared for numbers, my consultants asked:
Do you think the pain he has, which may show itself as anger, says anything about a desire to put opposites together and an inability to do so? Do you think if he could put together the precision of mathematics and the person who has all those dreams, he’d be a happier person?
I learned that, like many people, my father had a difficult time making sense out of the way he could be tough one moment, and tender the next, and that he and I, to my great surprise, had human questions in common. Seeing this, the hard knot of anger within me began to loosen. Through assignments I did, I came to see trying to know other people as a good time—for instance: “A monologue of my mother at 18,” “My sister’s pain: a short essay”—and, I wrote part of an imaginary Aesthetic Realism consultation for my father, taking both his part and that of the consultants. Through it, I began to realize that he had felt my mother, my sister, and I made him into nothing. When I saw that I’d actually hurt him, and hadn’t wanted to see his feelings as real, and that he had a right to be critical of me, I wanted to be different. For the first time I began to have real conversations with him which made for new respect and deeper feeling in both of us. The change in me had a visible effect: people said I looked softer, happier. When an old friend spotted me from a distance, she literally ran to me, saying: “You’re in love!” I was—with the new way of seeing I was learning from Aesthetic Realism.