Everyone’s Question: How Can I Like Myself?
Dear Unknown Friends:
The biggest question people have today is the question men and women had fifty years ago, a hundred, a thousand years ago: How can I like myself—finally like myself?! The therapies that have come and gone, the exhortations to “think positively,” the reassurances from friends, have not enabled people to look good to themselves deeply. Nor have they brought clarity to the accompanying question: Why don’t I like myself?
The answers to those biggest of questions, those questions closest to the life of everyone, are in Aesthetic Realism. And the article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Ernest DeFilippis, printed here, gives them, with illustrations from his own experience. Like the article by Jeffrey Carduner in our last issue, it is from a public seminar that took place at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in November: “What’s the Difference between Wowing People & Liking Oneself?”
The Only Way
Aesthetic Realism explains that there is only one way we can like ourselves: by doing all we can to see the world—what’s not ourselves—truly; doing all we can to be just to it; wanting to like it honestly. It is a magnificent fact that nothing else will work. That is the basis on which we inevitably, though most often unconsciously, judge ourselves, and no amount of praise from others or telling ourselves how wonderful we are will change it. “There is such a thing,” Eli Siegel writes, “as the ethical unconscious.” And he explains:
The ethical unconscious cannot be bribed. It does not know half-measures or quarter-measures. It is a neighbor of all that is true, and it must be on good terms with that neighbor. [Self and World, pp. 55, 339]
I think there is no greater praise of the human self, your self, than this fact. You are so ethically constituted that you can’t like yourself unless you like truth, unless you want to be fair to the outside world!
Aesthetic Realism explains too the opponent in every person to being fair to the world. It is contempt: the desire, continuous and huge, “to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.”
I am going to use five poems by Eli Siegel to illustrate the answer to that biggest question people have, How can I like myself? It’s an honor to publish them here.
A Quiet Form of Contempt
The first poem, very short, is about a quiet form of contempt:
A Fool, Also
Many a person who plays it cool
Is a fool—
Just like his hot-tempered or more
Contempt has many modes. But it’s always a fake way of trying to like ourselves, of feeling superior and mighty. And always, because it’s based on looking down on other things, it makes us dislike ourselves.
Contempt is the source, Aesthetic Realism shows, of every meanness, every brutality. For instance, that desire to make ourselves Somebody through lessening what’s different, is the cause of racism. But contempt also is in the everyday coolness told of in the above poem.
Millions of people are going on the presumption that they’ll be pleased with themselves by showing that what they meet is not good enough to stir them much, move them, ruffle them; that there’s nothing they can’t yawn at, be aloof from, dismiss if they wish. They may feel a certain smugness, but their success is also their failure, because in being unaffected, they have made for themselves a painful, ongoing sense of meaninglessness, an aching emptiness. Triumphant aloofness always makes for an inner agitation, and a self-disgust one cannot shake.
What Things Deserve
The next short poem can be seen as a companion to the first:
All the things that are
And the best, too.
We were born into the whole world—not just into a particular country or family. We’re related to “all the things that are.” And it’s a principal idea of Aesthetic Realism that every thing in reality—whether a bird, a stone, an atom, an uncle, an event in history, a song, a blade of grass—is just as real as every other thing, and deserves to be seen as deeply and fully as possible. We, of course, are not able to be aware of every item of the world, but we should hope to be as aware as possible. In most lives, there is a miserable complacency: a putting of limits on what to be aware of and how aware to be. This self-satisfied limiting makes a person deeply self-dissatisfied, distasteful to himself. Our like of ourselves is in proportion to how keenly we desire to have the best possible awareness of other things.
"Tell Me More: A Lyric” is about love. There’s humor in it, because, within a melting melodiousness, the poem’s statements are actually very critical. This critical lyricism is both funny and seriously kind:
Tell Me More: A Lyric
Tell me more,
And tell me more,
Until my heart is satisfied,
My heart, dear,
Not just your own.
What you say
But doesn’t satisfy my heart.
And that is the point, dear,
With all due politeness.
Politeness can go far in love,
Dear, can go far in love, dear,
And saying what a heart
Is desirous of hearing,
Is true politeness, dear.
Tell me more,
And tell me more,
And if you think you can’t,
Why don’t you reconsider,
And begin all over, dear,
As you should.
What is it that people are really looking for in love? What do they want to hear from each other? People think they want praise—to be made more important than the whole world by somebody. They think this will have them like themselves. The inter-adoration takes place, and then the two people don’t understand why they become so angry with each other and displeased with themselves. They don’t know that the purpose of love is to like the world itself through seeing another person truly.
In an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel enabled me and the man I was then close to, to understand the trouble between us. His words to us can be considered also a prose commentary on the poem. He asked Mr. J: “Do you have a full desire to understand Ms. Reiss?” “No,” was the reply. And Mr. Siegel continued, “You say it as if it’s not the large thing it is. Ms. Reiss feels you have lagged in understanding her.” He explained, using my name:
Every person wants to hear: “I want to understand you, Ellen Reiss. I’ll never get tired of trying to understand you, and if I lag in any way, I want you to tell me. And if you can’t tell me on Monday, try again on Tuesday.”
To my enormous relief, Mr. Siegel was giving form—beautiful form—to an insistent yet unarticulated feeling in me. It is a feeling now in millions of people; and they, like me, could become clear, proud, much kinder, through studying this explanation.
Opposites in the World
If we were to see the world justly, what would we see? We would see what the following Aesthetic Realism principle describes: “In reality opposites are one; art shows this.” In his article, Ernest DeFilippis speaks about opposites in objects and people: surface and depth, dark and light, known and unknown. The poems of Eli Siegel printed here are all from a notebook he kept in 1961, and in it are two about space. They have to do with the large, bewildering opposites of Something and Nothing. Here is the first:
Now Look at It or Them
The space between the clouds was furious
At being only space;
It wanted to be everything else, clouds included.
When space is furious, it gets what it wants.
Once everything was space.
Now, look at it or them.
Space, or vacancy, is a phase of Nothing. It happens that the fight, the disparity, the shuttle between Something and Nothing torments people: a person goes from thinking things come to nothing, to thinking they mean a great deal to him or her—then back again. We can go from feeling there’s too much we have to deal with to feeling vacant. But if, as this poem says, space can become objects, then Something and Nothing are not just separate in the world. The poem is, of course, playful, yet serious too. Here is another poem on the subject:
Something You Can Like
The space between r and s
As you hear the word tigers,
Something you can like.
There is nothing humanity needs more than the knowledge of how we can honestly like ourselves, so we can stop trying to “like” ourselves shabbily, falsely, cruelly. This knowledge is in Aesthetic Realism.