Is Kindness Intelligent, Selfish, Strong?

from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar, with a discussion of the life & work of 19th century educator Elizabeth Palmer Peabody—founder of the American kindergarten

livelychildrenBy the age of 19, though I tried to convince myself I was a kind person, I knew I wasn’t; inside, I felt mean and selfish, and I didn’t think that could ever change. Then, to my everlasting gratitude, I met and began to study Aesthetic Realism in consultations. Eli Siegel defined kindness as “that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased,” and he continues: “A person is kind who feels a sense of likeness to other things: who accepts accurately his relation to other things.”

My life changed—dramatically and beautifully—when I began to see my kinship with other people. I also learned that what stopped me from being kind was the false way I went after taking care of myself—through contempt. Mr. Siegel described contempt as “a danger [in] every individual…to think that one’s own individuality will flourish, …be more important, through not caring for what is not [one]self.”

I thought it was smart to show how little things mattered to me, but I was lonely. Through criticism of my contempt, beginning in consultations, and encouragement of my desire to be fair, I am more the person I hope to be: one who is kinder—including in the work I’m so proud of as a high school English teacher using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method. My gratitude for this is immense.

Seeing our relation makes for kindness
As a child in Brooklyn, I felt I was different from my parents and my younger sister—different and superior. I would never fly into a rage and lose my composure as my father did. And while I envied how my mother seemed at ease with people, I thought it wasn’t dignified to talk to just anyone the way she did. I also felt powerful and approved of when my sister asked my opinion, and I handed down words of wisdom only I, an older sister, could provide. But I didn’t think about who they were. Instead, I was scornful and aloof.

There were times, though, when I wanted to be with people. At the bungalow colony where we spent the summers, I loved singing and dancing with my cousins in shows we put on for our families. And when I was 12, my best friend and I began a day camp for children in our building. I wanted to have a good effect on them, and I respected myself. But mainly, I felt painfully separate. How relieved I was when I learned from Aesthetic Realism that my “shyness” was really a feeling I was too good to share my precious self with anyone.

I was usually quiet, but would also suddenly blurt out something cutting and cruel. For example, when I was 7, my Brownie troop met at the Jewish center, and at holiday time, I saw Cathy making a Christmas card, while the rest of us made Hanukkah cards. Feeling she was different, and wanting to see her squirm, I said to her, “If you’re not Jewish, you’re not supposed to be here.” Cathy started to cry. I respect my mother, who was a troop leader, for pulling me out of the room and telling me to apologize to Cathy. I did, but I never forgot my meanness to her, which I regret very much, and never understood what had impelled me—until I learned from Aesthetic Realism about my desire for contempt.

“Which is more real to you, your difference or your relation?,” I was asked in a consultation. “My difference,” I answered, and my consultants said, “That’s one of the ways you’re like other people.” With compassion they explained, “You think what makes you feel bad is you just didn’t get yourself into the right world, [but Aesthetic Realism says] people feel bad when they don’t have good will.”

I told them I was confused by my father, Barney Rosen. I didn’t understand how the person I sometimes liked being with so much—for instance, when I watched him play handball or as he helped me with a report—could also get me so angry. We argued about nearly everything. He would shout, I would be cool and sarcastic, and both of us felt awful.

I learned he and I were more alike than I had any idea of. “Do you think what makes your father angry is at all like what makes you angry?,” my consultants asked. I said what made me most angry was not being known, understood, and they asked, “Is that the chief thing that makes him angry?” This was such a surprise to me, but I felt it was true. And they showed me that Barney Rosen is related to all reality. When I said I was in awe of a beautiful night sky with thousands of bright stars, my consultants asked, “Is your father bright and dark? Is the way he can go from something bright to something darksome as tremendous a question as the way stars can be in a dark night?

For the first time, I began to know who my paternal parent was—not just in relation to me, but as standing for the whole world; I was more interested in him, and kinder.

The fight about kindness in a woman of 19th century Boston
A woman who, in her nearly 90 years, showed kindness in a large way is Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who was born on May 16, 1804. Called “the Grandmother of Boston,” she was an energy! She worked passionately for justice in many fields: the abolition of slavery; having the work of promising artists known—including the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and the painter Washington Allston; and the field for which she is most remembered—as founder of the kindergarten in America. Elizabeth Peabody has been described as kind, having “a large heart,” as “a profound optimist…believing that change was possible, even inevitable.” Yet, even as she did so much to make people’s lives better, she also had a false idea of kindness, which women have had—feeling we should make people’s decisions for them because we know best what is right.

Elizabeth was the first of six children born to Nathaniel Peabody and Elizabeth Palmer, who were teachers. Mrs. Peabody read to the children from great works of literature and history, and taught her three daughters in the school she ran to help support the family. Elizabeth’s father taught her Latin for two hours a day; she read voraciously, and had a love for learning that impelled her all her life.

At 16, she took over her mother’s school. During that year—which she said was among her happiest—Louise Hall Tharp writes in The Peabody Sisters of Salem,

her reputation as an unusually gifted teacher was…established, for she was able to communicate to her pupils some of her own passion for acquiring knowledge.

She saw it as her strength to encourage people to be rightly pleased by the facts of the world. Though she taught the usual subjects, biographer Bruce Ronda says: “She saw her real subject as ‘human life.’” Writing to the reformer Dorothea Dix, she said:

It is my rule never to find fault with an individual for whom I do not feel a personal & very warm & tender interest—be it child or grown person.—And never to find fault unless I can clearly see a method of removing the fault which I can point out.

This desire to see her kinship with other people, and to criticize and encourage them at the same time, is on the side of good will, which Mr. Siegel describes as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” In many ways, she did work to strengthen people—often asserting her opinion without being asked—and it is one of the best things about her.

But Elizabeth Peabody also wanted to manage people without thinking of what would make them stronger. She was, Tharp writes, “an expert in ordering other people’s lives”—and this began with her family. “I wish you now to read only those poets with whom no one has found fault and which are perfectly moral,” she wrote to her youngest sister Sophia. She decided what they should do, and when, and at one point, moved the entire family—including her father’s dental practice—from Salem to Boston. In the comment to his definition of kindness, Mr. Siegel explains:

It is…easy pompously to impose what we think is their desire on other people….To be kind, we must have the imagination arising from the knowledge of feeling had by others. This knowledge comes from the seeing of ourselves as like other people, while humbly recognizing that there is otherness, too.

In 1837, Elizabeth Peabody discovered that the author of several stories that moved her very much was a neighbor from her childhood in Salem, Massachusetts—Nathaniel Hawthorne—and she is credited with bringing his work to the attention of American readers. Praising him, she wrote of the “picturesque beauty of his style” and “the purity—elevation—and justness of his conscience.” She encouraged the reclusive Hawthorne to know people, introducing him to writers and publishers, and he was grateful. He began visiting the Peabody home, where he met and fell in love with her sister Sophia. But again, there was a mix-up in Elizabeth as she tried to be useful to Hawthorne. Without his knowledge or consent, she took it upon herself to find work for him, and offered unsolicited advice about his stories, saying they should have happier endings. Understandably, Nathaniel Hawthorne became increasingly resentful of her desire to manage his and Sophia’s lives, and as time went on, they grew more distant.

Kindness and unkindness in love
A field in which many women feel they are not kind is love. When I was with a man, I wanted to manage things. I would also try to impress him with my intelligence and my devotion, and was bewildered when this didn’t result in the utter approval I was angling for. My consultants asked me: “Do you see men in terms of what you can or cannot do to them?” I said Yes. “Is that fair to men?” It was not. As I learned that for love to succeed, a woman has to want a man to be “rightly pleased” by the whole world—not just by her—I began to feel I could really be a kind friend to men.

Elizabeth Peabody was intensely independent—a fact she wrote of often—and was proud of her intellect. She impressed people, but, writes Tharp, at 19 she “knew just a little too much Greek, Latin and Hebrew to be popular [with young men],…and for the first time in her life, it bothered her.” Early in the 19th century, women were just beginning to be allowed the right to an education, their own opinions, and careers outside the home. However, as a woman who once tried to use knowledge to have a big effect on men, I think Miss Peabody was unsure about whether to use her intellect to be kind to a man, or to be superior. It seems one man did ask her to marry him. Though very little is known about this, the biographers say she felt her independence was threatened—and she refused him.

After this, she had deep friendships with some of the most admirable men of her time, including a life-long friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose work and criticism of her writing she valued. The educator Horace Mann—who later married her sister Mary—benefited from her thought about education, which encouraged him to be a force for public schools in America. She was a close friend to the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, whose sermons stirred her so much, she insisted on copying them out so they could be preserved. —This is an instance of managing for a kind purpose.

But she could be consumed by her friendships—writing many long, effusive letters to these men. Mary wrote of how she saw Channing, who was married: “He is too much your whole happiness.” I believe Elizabeth Peabody was troubled by her desire to be indispensable to a person she saw as important. Tharp describes her as wanting to be “beholden to no one, but in a position to help others.”

I know Elizabeth Peabody would have felt understood, as I did, by these questions I had the privilege to hear from Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss in a class that changed how I saw kindness and love. Ms. Reiss asked me what criticism I had heard from men. I answered, “They’ve said I am very glad to be useful to them, but that I don’t like use to come to me from them.” “Do you think if we don’t want people to be useful to us, we can’t wholly want to be useful to them?” I wasn’t sure why, and she explained:

If we want to be useful to a person, the question is, useful about what? Do we really want his life to be as good as it can be? Part of a person’s life being good is for that person to have a meaning that is unlimited. But if we don’t want him to have meaning for us, we don’t wholly want him to have meaning; so, there is something not wholly useful. You have to see the opposites can’t be divided so easily.

As I saw that my desire not to get deep usefulness from another person was really mean and also not intelligent—stopping me from caring for a man as I hoped to—I began to feel free, and more confident. I came to feel that these words, in which Ms. Reiss described an important goal of mine, stand for me: “I am Leila Rosen. I am very hopeful about love because I know I really want men to be stronger.”

This feeling has made possible a marriage I cherish to Alan Shapiro, who is a musician and teacher. I am proud to need him: his good nature and depth, his keen perception of the world and of me, his desire to be kind. We’re both very grateful to have met and be studying together the education that changed both of our lives so deeply, and can make for real happiness and kindness in people everywhere.

The relation of knowledge, justice and kindness
Elizabeth Peabody came to be greatly admired all over Boston. People loved to hear her talk. The American theologian and transcendentalist Theodore Parker called her “the Narrative Miss Peabody” for the enthralling way she told stories. She wrote to Mary: “I must communicate wherever there is a human being presented to my senses.”

She spoke passionately against slavery—which she hated, she said, “from my earliest infancy when my mother induced us children to refuse to eat sugar because it was the fruit of slave labor.”

But the driving force of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s life was children’s education. She worked to help establish a school for Black orphans in Washington, DC, and believed the government should be spending much more money on public education. How relevant these words of hers in 1849 are today!:

It is plain that if we can spend a hundred millions of dollars a year for so questionable a purpose as the late war with Mexico, we have resources on which we might draw for public education.

At the age of 56, Elizabeth Peabody began the work for which she is remembered in American education. She read the work of the German educator, Friedrich Froebel, who began the kindergarten, and said children should learn about the world and themselves through discovery—using games, songs, drawing, and nature. I believe what he was going for, and what affected Elizabeth Peabody so much in his work, has been made clear now, in the 20th century by Eli Siegel: “The purpose of all education is to like the world through knowing it.”

After Elizabeth Peabody opened the first English language kindergarten in America, she spent the next two decades writing and lecturing all over the country. Even at the age of 80—nearly blind and having suffered a mild stroke—she had tremendous energy. She had found, writes Tharp “one of the greatest secrets of staying young—the habit of always learning something new.” She died, on January 3, 1894—just a few months before her 90th birthday.

What Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was hoping to learn—as is every woman in America today—is that the purpose of education, of love, and of life itself is to like the world. This is the one way to be proudly ourselves, intelligent, kind and truly selfish. Said Mr. Siegel in Mind and Kindness, “The whole purport of Aesthetic Realism is that the more you know what reality is, the kinder you’ll feel that it is.” Aesthetic Realism is the kindest education in history. The world and every person in it will be kinder, happier, and so fortunate, when this fact is universally known.



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