Caring for People—Wisdom or Foolishness?

Including a discussion of the character Scout Finch, from Harper Lee’s novel
To Kill a Mockingbird


As a person who once thought it was foolish to care for anyone besides myself, I am infinitely grateful to Aesthetic Realism for enabling me to change about this! I have learned that knowing and truly caring for other people is not only wise, but really the same as taking care of myself. Our deepest desire is to like reality; and people, Eli Siegel states in his great lecture Aesthetic Realism and People, “are reality in the richest form.”

“Every person,” he explains,

gives us a chance of knowing ourselves better….People are midway between the unexpressed part of reality—the rocks, the skies, the rivers, the things that don’t have life—and completely knowing life….Once you have a chance to know somebody close or far and you don’t take it, please try to see yourself clearly and proudly as wrong.

Though in school I had pleasure learning how people lived in South America, France, and Japan, studied the languages they spoke, and had pen pals all over the world, I didn’t like people and felt knowing a person close to me was confusing and unnecessary. “There is something in us that doesn’t want to like anything[,]” Mr. Siegel explains, “that says if we respect something or like something, we have taken away from ourselves.” This is contempt, and it is the thing that stops us from caring for people. Through Aesthetic Realism’s kind, exact criticism of my contempt—in consultations, in classes taught by Eli Siegel and now by Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss—I know and care for people more with every year—both personally, and in my work as a high school English teacher.

This Is What Stopped Me from Caring for People
“The first thing necessary in liking people,” writes Mr. Siegel in Children’s Guide to Parents and Other Matters:

is to see that they have insides just as you have….It is so easy to make oneself important by saying that what goes on in oneself has nothing much to do with other things. This is a way to get a certain kind of importance, but it is also a way to be awfully, sadly, disgustingly lonely.

Growing up in Brooklyn, I didn’t see my family, friends, other people as having insides just as I had, and it made me mean. When I saw someone easily join in a game or conversation, I had two opposed feelings. I’d think: “Why can’t I be friendly like that?” Yet I also felt it was weak and stupid to let anyone matter to me. Often, I’d talk to people only if I could mock, sometimes making other children cry.

When I was about 7, I watched every afternoon from my window as a girl my age and her older brother played outside. They were having fun and I wanted to join them, but wouldn’t deign to ask. One day, I couldn’t help myself, but rather than asking straight, I called out in a mocking tone, “Ma-rí-a.” Immediately, I wished I hadn’t—sure that I’d ruined everything. To my relief, she invited me down, but her friendliness made me even more ashamed of how I’d spoken.

In Aesthetic Realism consultations, I began to learn about my desire to feel I was more sensitive than other people. I was often easily wounded, and felt this proved I was in an unfriendly world for which I could have contempt. My consultants asked me. “What’s the great insult you get from everyone?” I said, “Treating me like a child.” They disagreed: “It’s that they’re not you. That’s the way we’re insulted by every other human being. They’re not us, and they seem to think they’re important anyway.” I did feel it was an affront to have to do with all those people who weren’t me—yet, in my desire to be different, I was most of the time “awfully, sadly, disgustingly lonely.”

I learned that how I saw people began with how I saw my family. “One of the first things necessary in liking people,” Mr. Siegel explains:

is to grant them the same purposes we have. But…that would be giving them so much credit! Let us rather sneer at them and sniff at them and forget about them.

I had used feeling that I had more refined interests than my parents to sum them up unjustly and snobbishly, not granting them the same depth and hopes I had. I did this also with my younger sister, Ronnie. “Do you see her as a full person?” I was asked in a consultation. I hadn’t. I described her as liking to stay close to home, yet when asked if I had anything to learn from Ronnie, I said yes—from her liveliness and desire to do things out in the world. “So, she’s got the opposites. Do you think that’s what you can learn from her—how she embodies the world?”

I loved writing my consultation assignment, “How Ronnie Rosen Embodies the World.” I saw, for instance, how she was both fixed and expansive as she liked to keep to a routine, while wanting to learn about new things; strong and delicate as she baby-sat for a young child—and these opposites are one in the dear, grand Brooklyn Bridge, with its massive stone supports and complex, graceful cables reaching out. As I began seeing how my sister represents “reality in its richest form”—I came to see her as dramatically like and different from myself, and to care for her more.

Caring for People—in Literature and Life
The way I most showed I wanted to know and like the world was in my care for language and literature. However, like many women, I didn’t see knowing people—especially men—as a proud intellectual achievement. In a class some years ago, Ellen Reiss described me so truly when she said, “Leila Rosen is afraid that at any moment, she may need something from a man, and all her interest in culture will be lowered.” In a thrilling lecture about literature, which was studied in an Aesthetic Realism class, and which I had the honor to report on, Mr. Siegel explained:

The word “‘character” brings together two things in Aesthetic Realism—art and life. I’ve said to people again and again, “You are not interested in people enough. You don’t want to see them truly.” I cannot say intense readers of fiction have been kinder to people or wanted to know them. Mostly when you’re interested in a character in fiction, you feel your obligation to the human race is over.

Knowing I hoped to care for people more, Ms. Reiss asked, “Can you take this class as a means of joining your interest in what a word can do and what humanity is?” I’m grateful to be engaged in this great study, learning how to have the same purpose as I look at the structure of a sentence or a novel, and in knowing a person, including my husband, Alan Shapiro—jazz pianist and teacher of music—to think lingeringly and deeply about who he is, and see how the structure of reality is in him.

I loved studying with the students in my high school English classes, how characters in literature can help us know ourselves and see the wisdom in caring for other people. I speak now of a character my students and I care for very much: Jean Louise Finch, usually called Scout—the narrator of the moving 1960 novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

As we began to read this novel, still popular after more than 50 years, my students—of Latin American, Chinese, and African American descent—were learning that we need to be proud of how we see people, including those we have seen as just different from ourselves; and how urgent it is that we be against the contempt in ourselves and others that makes for injustice.

The events of three years in the early 1930s are seen through the eyes of Scout, who is 6 as the novel begins. She and her brother Jem, age 10, live in Maycomb, Alabama with their widowed father—the lawyer Atticus Finch, who is admirable in his desire to have people, including poor black people, seen and treated justly. This affects everyone in the town, including his children.

Scout is a mischievous girl who teases people and gets into fights. “That girl is so bad!,” said one of my students, Danielle Watson, as she came into class one day after reading about this. On her first disastrous day at school, Scout unwittingly antagonizes her teacher by showing she already knows how to read and write. And when she explains to Miss Caroline that the reason Walter Cunningham, who is very poor, won’t borrow a quarter for lunch is that he knows he can never pay it back, the teacher changes her own shame at not having been interested enough in her students into annoyance with Scout, whom she punishes. Scout blames Walter, and beats him up in the yard. When she begs Atticus not to send her back to school, with all those confusing people, he explains:

“First of all, if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—”

“Sir?”

“—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Though the word “trick” can be questioned, this is kind advice from a father to a daughter, making it possible for her to care more for people.

Prejudice vs. a Just Way of Seeing People
Aesthetic Realism explains that all prejudice comes from contempt–the hope to be superior through seeing another person as essentially different from and less than oneself. Black persons in Maycomb are seen with this horrible contempt—including Tom Robinson, a kind, dignified family man who is falsely charged with the rape of 19-year-old Mayella Ewell, who is white. There is also prejudice against the Ewell family, who are seen as inferior. The father of 7 children, Bob Ewell is angry at the world; he is driven to spend his relief checks on drink, and is unable to feed his family, who are forced to live in squalor.
A central thing in the novel is the trial of Tom Robinson. Though they don’t respect the Ewells, many people in this virulently racist town are enraged that Atticus will be defending Tom, and call the lawyer insulting names which are repeated by children in the school yard. When he learns that Scout is getting into fights defending him, Atticus explains to her why he is taking the case. He says:

“If I didn’t, …I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again….”
“Why?”
“Because…Tom Robinson’s case is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience. Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”

Atticus represents here what Aesthetic Realism explains is our greatest necessity in our thought about and relations with other people: good will, “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” In an early consultation, as I spoke about the ongoing verbal battles I had with my father, which I had a hard time giving up, my consultants asked, “What are you going to get out of stopping your war with him?” I said weakly, “A father I like better.” “Will you get a self you like better?,” they asked, explaining:

There is an ethical imperative in us that makes us unable to bear ourselves if we’re not just to other things. You need to be just to people, especially someone as central in your life as your father.

And they asked, “How much is good will a force in us? This is something everyone is too academic about.” It means my life to me to be learning how emergent it is that we not be academic about good will; not only for our own self-respect, but for the very safety of the world.

Seeing a Person’s Feelings as Real
“According to Aesthetic Realism,” explained Mr. Siegel,

the greatest sin that a person can have is the desire for contempt. Because as soon as you have contempt, as soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person. These three things come out of the insufficient awareness of another person or another thing.

This “insufficient awareness” of other people, accompanied by great anger at being seen unjustly oneself, is now making for horrors all over the world. Aesthetic Realism can teach every person that as we try respectfully to see the feelings of any one person, we see him or her as more like us than we knew, and we will not want to hurt people.

This explains one of the novel’s most moving scenes. One night, warned that a group of angry men wants to kill Tom Robinson, who is in jail, Atticus goes there to prevent trouble. Curious about where their father went, and unaware of the danger, Scout and Jem, and their friend Dill, sneak out to find him. They burst through the angry mob; Atticus orders them home, but they won’t budge. In the midst of danger and antagonism, Scout sees a kinship between herself and one of these men. Noticing a familiar face in the crowd—the father of her classmate Walter Cunningham—she says:

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham….Don’t you remember me[?] I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember? I go to school with Walter….He’s your boy, … ain’t he, sir?”

Mr. Cunningham was moved to a faint nod. He did know me, after all.

“He’s in my grade,…and he does right well. He’s a good boy,…a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me. I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?”

By speaking to Mr. Cunningham not as part of a mob, but as a human being with fatherly feelings, Scout is able to evoke something kinder from him. Suddenly, Mr. Cunningham

did a peculiar thing. He squatted down and took me by both shoulders.
“I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady,” he said.
Then, he straightened up and waved a big paw. “Let’s clear out…Let’s get going boys.”

The men leave.

Another point in the novel that affected my students and me is where Scout tries to see the feelings of the young woman, Mayella Ewell, as she is on the witness stand. During the trial, it becomes clear that Tom Robinson is innocent, and that Mayella Ewell is lying about what occurred. And when Atticus addresses her as “ma’am” she is insulted, and accuses him of mocking her by being polite. Scout thinks to herself:

I wondered if anybody had ever called her “ma’am” or “Miss Mayella” in her life; probably not, as she took offense to routine courtesy. What on earth was her life like?… [She] must have been the loneliest person in the world.

This is so different from the way of seeing people Scout had early in the novel, particularly as she and other children looked at another person whom Maycomb’s citizens see unkindly—their neighbor, Boo Radley, who hasn’t left his house in 15 years. Not understanding him, they turn their puzzlement into contempt—describing him as a phantom and an ogre, making up scary Boo Radley stories and games, taunting him.

This changes after the trial at which, shamefully, Tom Robinson is found guilty despite all the evidence, and Bob Ewell—Mayella’s father and the person who actually beat her for liking Tom—vows to get back at Atticus for exposing him and his family to the town. That dark Halloween night, as Scout and Jem walk home from a school pageant, Mr. Ewell attacks them—breaking Jem’s arm and going at Scout with a knife. Suddenly, she hears Mr. Ewell struggling with someone else whom she doesn’t recognize. This mysterious man stops Mr. Ewell from hurting them, and carries Jem home—and later, as she sees him, so pallid and ill-at-ease as he leans against the wall in her brother’s room, she realizes it is Boo Radley. She sees that even as he never left his home, he had watched them and cared for them all this time—and now, he had saved their lives.

And as she walks home with him, and stands on the Radley porch looking out at the town, she literally sees from Boo Radley’s point of view. My students were very moved. Danielle Watson, the student who’d described Scout as so bad, wrote, “Before, she thought that if a person did things that she didn’t or wouldn’t do, it was wrong. She learns to like other people by seeing them ‘as having insides just as she had.'” “I respect Scout for trying to find ways, many ways, to understand people,” wrote Alma Camacho. “She learns that in being kind, you are interested in other people’s feelings and try to understand them as much as you can.” Ivan Morel agreed: “Scout begins to see how people are more like her than she used to give them credit for.”

This is the beautiful upshot I think Harper Lee hoped her novel would have, and understood with the knowledge of Aesthetic Realism, it can. Yet, because Ms. Lee did not believe in it enough, we see Scout say near the end: “I came to the conclusion that people were just peculiar, I withdrew from them, and never thought about them until I was forced to.”

“The more we like people,” stated Eli Siegel,

the more we’ll be proud of ourselves….The important thing about people…is, they are real. If, after much fuss and evolution, reality took the form of people, we have to respect that happening.

When men, women, and young people everywhere are able to study Aesthetic Realism, there will be true care for people, and for the world we come from, that can make every person feel honestly proud and wise.

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  • Copyright ©2017 by Leila Rosen