Your Particular Self—& All People
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the conclusion of the great 1948 lecture Mind and People, by Eli Siegel. And we print, too, part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Bruce Blaustein presented this July at a seminar titled “What Does It Mean to Bring Out the Best in People?—& Do We Want To?”
In Mind and People we see Mr. Siegel describing the biggest confusion, opportunity, turmoil, field for kindness or cruelty in the life of everyone. It is this: We want, terrifically, to see ourselves as just us—unique, apart—and to take care of our own self. Yet we also, simply by existing, have to do with everything and everyone—and we have a deep, impelling desire to see ourselves as of them, related, close. These desires are opposites, and people have gotten and given much pain because they haven’t been able to put them together. In fact, all the cruelty in the world has come from people’s feeling that care for their own self was different from justice to all other things and people.
Aesthetic Realism explains that our constant and burning need is to see ourselves as at once unique and related to everything. It is an aesthetic need, described by Eli Siegel in the following principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The various psychiatrists and counselors today do not understand the aesthetic nature of self, any more than those of the 1940s did. Therefore they don’t understand the cause of human troubles, either the frequent troubles or the less frequent. I’ll comment on one that was the subject of a New York Times article in August: “selective mutism.”
Why Are They Silent?
The article tells about a group of children taking part in a program in Florida:
It has been months, sometimes years, since these children have talked to anyone apart from family....They are terrified of talking in social situations. They may be chatterboxes at home, but at school or around unfamiliar faces, they are stone-faced and silent.
The National Institutes of Health website says of selective mutism: “The cause, or causes, are unknown.”
The various discussions of this condition present it as quite unusual, something most people don’t have. In a way that’s true. Yet it’s not seen that everyone has some selective mutism: there are times we find we cannot talk; also, don’t want to talk. And the cause of selective mutism won’t be understood while the condition is seen as just different from what most people do. For instance, all over the world, wives are complaining that a husband doesn’t talk; parents are complaining that their child replies to questions in one-syllable answers.
I believe both the cause of and solution to “selective mutism” are given by Mr. Siegel in Mind and People. If a person, of any age, finds herself unable to talk though she’s physically capable of speaking, it has to do with the central matter: How can we affirm our individuality, yet see ourselves as related to other people? Since people represent the world, that question is a form of this one: How do we see the world which is not ourselves?
If a child felt the world was her friend, would she be able to talk to people outside the family—that is, people she didn’t see as belonging to her? Yes.
Is there in “selective mutism” a feeling that people don’t deserve to hear you? Yes. Can that be accompanied by a feeling that you don’t deserve to speak to them? Yes.
The feeling that the world does not deserve for us to express ourselves in it is widespread. It’s had by men, women, and children. There is an aspect of us which, even as we may suffer, gets an importance, a satisfaction, from feeling we’re in a world not good enough for us; we’re among people who are crude and fearsome while we are sensitive. This satisfaction is contempt. There is no more necessary study for humanity than the study of contempt, as Aesthetic Realism describes it: the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” Contempt, Aesthetic Realism shows, is “the greatest danger or temptation of man.” It has thousands of forms.
For instance, a person (we’ll call her Doreen) can feel, without articulating it: “Only people who act like I’m much more important than other human beings, who make me a princess, deserve for me to speak to them.” Then, because the self is deeply ethical, Doreen also feels that this way of seeing people is unjust and ugly—and that therefore she doesn’t deserve to speak to them.
Are People Like Us?
The Times article describes an attempt to deal with selective mutism through a new technique: in an “immersion program,” selectively mute young people are brought together in groups. We’re told that in certain instances the technique has been somewhat useful. And here I’ll say: if such a technique has a good effect, as big a reason as any is that the participants are in a position to feel somewhat related to other people. They see that other children have the same problem.
I am sure that selective mutism—and many other difficulties—would not exist if a person saw other people as like oneself. Further, this, and many other difficulties, would not exist if a person felt that knowing the world made him or her important.
There are many ways persons make a rift between cherishing themselves and having to do with people. You can be the life of the cocktail party, yet feel your real self is hidden from everyone—and have triumph and also pain from that feeling. The Aesthetic Realism study of the opposites in us is magnificent, exact. It is what people thirst for.