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The World Now—& You

Reverend Wayne Plumstead Comments

  • Writer's pictureWayne Plumstead

Should Love Be a Means of Liking the World?

Growing up I always heard from mental health professionals and others that before we can like anything else we have to first be able to like ourselves. I went by that advice, trying to “like myself” first. But it just didn’t work. The more I focused on myself the worse I felt about myself. When I began studying the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel I finally understood why, and it changed my life. The truth about how to like oneself was the exact opposite of the “conventional” wisdom I had been following. I learned that in order to like myself I needed to see the world outside myself in a way I could be truly proud of. Eli Siegel writes:

…[T]he thing most needed by man to have a…respect for himself that is valid, is the feeling…the world is seen by him in a fair way, an accurate way, and one that goes toward, as much as possible, liking the world. *

I learned there is a tremendous desire in a person to need nothing but oneself, to feel the outside world isn't good enough to affect us. This is contempt, which Eli Siegel defined as "the disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world." This, I learned, is what made for a constant feeling in me that something big was missing in my life. I began to understand so many instances in my early life that puzzled me.

For example, I remembered how on family vacations I spent hours exploring the beach and showing my family rocks and shells I had gathered. I was amazed by how something as seemingly gentle as water had the force to make a jagged rock smooth, and by the way a shell could be glassy on one side and have a rich texture on the other.

I didn’t know then that the reason I was so taken by these rocks and shells is that they put together opposites—hard and soft, roughness and smoothness—which were opposites I was trying to make sense of. “All beauty,” Mr. Siegel explained, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

But I was also embarrassed to have so much feeling for something that wasn’t me and which I told myself was so insignificant. When I heard my father tell a neighbor how much pleasure I got from these shells and rocks, I was furious. I packed them into several shoe boxes and put them away into the attic.

I had the feeling that to need anything was to admit to a deficiency in myself—and this included people. Whenever a friendship began to develop, I would inevitably pick a fight with that person, and we would end up not speaking. Even as I could feel so lonely, I also prided myself on showing how little I needed anybody.

In a lecture titled Mind and Emptiness Mr. Siegel says:

While we are trying to say to things, “Reach me,” we are also trying to wipe them away….Unless…it is seen that…the needing of a friend, the needing of company, the need to know what another person is—all these things—are signs of emancipation, not signs of bondage, we shall feel…empty because we did not welcome things.

When I read these sentences, I knew they explained me and the emptiness I felt. I came to see through Aesthetic Realism that the more I liked needing the world outside myself the freer and happier I felt.

Love Is Proud Need

I learned that the hope to like the world as a means of liking oneself is the central thing in love. In fact, Mr. Siegel defined love as “proud need” and he wrote:

A self can say to another being, "Through what you do and what you are and what you can do, I can come to be more I, more me, more myself; and I can see the immeasurable being of things more wonderfully of me, for me.…”

In every instance of love, both where it goes wrong and where it is beautifully right, we can see that the fight in a man about how much large emotion for a woman he should have is part of a larger fight about how much he should need the world itself. The important literature of the world is a useful commentary on this fight. For instance, there is the 1901 novel by Frank Norris, The Octopus: A Story of California.

The main character in the story is Buck Annixter, the well-to-do owner of the Queen Sabe Ranch—a large wheat farm in turn-of-the-century California. Buck prides himself on being a self-made man with little need for anything else. Norris describes him as “intolerant in his opinions” and “relying upon absolutely no one but himself.”

Like so many people, Annixter sees the world and the people in it as out to lessen him—and thinks he is at his strongest and wisest combating it. He sleeps with his two hands “doubled up into fists” under his pillow and gritting “his teeth ferociously.” Norris writes:

On no occasion was Annixter prepared to accept another man’s opinion without reserve. In conversation with him, it was almost impossible to make any direct statement, however trivial, that he would accept without either modification or open contradiction.

Annixter’s way of seeing women is in keeping with his way of seeing everything: he is angry that he finds himself affected by them. To him, it is a humiliation. Norris writes:

Annixter pretended to be a woman-hater…Feemales! Rot! There was a fine way for a man to waste his time.…

Yet he suffers from his contempt. He has frequent anxiety attacks which incapacitate him for days on end. And for all his bravado, he is deeply unsure of himself, especially in the company of Hilma Tree, a young woman who works the dairy farm on his ranch. He is stirred by the way reality’s opposites show themselves with subtlety and power in Hilma. “For all the dignity of [her] rigorous simplicity,” writes Norris, “there were about Hilma small contradictory suggestions of feminine daintiness, charming beyond words.…"

Hilma Tree has a genuine sweetness, and the way she sees beauty in the ordinary things of this world meets a deep hope in Annixter, and opposes his sourness and fury. Here Norris describes one of their first meetings in the dairy barn:

[Hilma] drew a deep breath, turning toward the window and spreading her pink fingertips to the light. “Oh, the sun. I love the sun. See, put your hand…on the top of the vat—like that. Isn’t it warm? Isn’t it fine? And don’t you love to see it coming in…through the windows, floods of it; and all the little dust in it shining?”

Through Hilma, Annixter sees a meaning in everyday things he hadn’t seen before. His deepest need is being met—the need to like the world. But like many men, he doesn’t feel being stirred by a woman is emancipation; he feels it enslaves him. Because he doesn’t think the world is friendly, he cannot see a person who represents the world as on his side either. He is suspicious and angry, and he wants to be rid of Hilma. Norris writes:

[Annixter] found himself thinking of [Hilma] after he had gone to bed that night.…Then abruptly he…lost patience with himself for being so occupied with the subject, raging and furious with all the breed of feemales.…Aha, he saw through her! She was trying to get a hold on him, was she? He would show her.…He resolved upon a terrible demeanor in the presence of the dairy girl—a great show of indifference, a fierce masculine nonchalance; and when, the next morning, she brought him his breakfast, he had been smitten dumb as soon as she entered the room, gluing his eyes upon his plate, his elbows close to his side, awkward, clumsy, overwhelmed with constraint.

Yet Annixter cannot dismiss Hilma, and he finally makes what in his view is an enormous concession: he asks her to live with him. But he still wants to show he doesn’t need her completely. She assumes he is proposing marriage, but he says: “We understand each other. Isn’t that enough? I’m no marrying man.”

She looked at him…bewildered, [Norris writes] then slowly she took his meaning. Hilma leaped back from him with an instinctive recoil…throwing out her hands in a gesture of defense…It was as though searching for wildflowers she had come suddenly upon a snake.

The “snake” is Annixter’s feeling that large emotion for anything not himself is a defeat, not a victory. He felt that in not needing others he was asserting his untarnished individuality, but he was really weakening himself and settling for small and tepid emotions instead of grand ones.

We Need Grand Emotions, Not Tepid Ones

Had I not met Aesthetic Realism I would have been condemned to a life of lukewarm feelings and arrogant loneliness. Instead, I was freed to have such joy and large emotion in wanting to know the world and, to my great gratitude, this came in time to include the passionate feeling and true pride of loving my dear wife of almost forty years, Rosemary Plumstead.

As I came to know Rosemary I was deeply stirred by her beauty—not only her physical beauty but also by the beautiful way she used her mind. She could be everyday, alert to the moment, energetically interested in people, and yet so very deep and thoughtful. Even as I protected my stuffy remoteness, I was deeply ashamed of it and admired the way Rosemary wasn’t standoffish. She is an Aesthetic Realism consultant and had a highly successful career as a high school biology teacher, and I was moved hearing her speak with such excitement and exactitude about how the human body puts opposites together, which she herself learned through her study of Aesthetic Realism. Her beauty, charm and intellect simply swept me off my feet. I knew I had the chance to be more of the person I always hoped to be through her, and it was one of the happiest days of my life when Rosemary agreed to marry me. Throughout the years she has strengthened me in so many ways and this very much includes the way she has encouraged deeper thought in me, and much greater care, for every one of my parishioners.

Shortly after our marriage, however, I made a mistake very common with husbands. As my feeling for Rosemary increased with our greater proximity—so did my irritation. I felt that in giving my precious self to another person and needing to be interested in her deeply, I was losing my own independence. Fortunately, I was studying in Aesthetic Realism classes and when I explained what I was feeling, the Chairman of Education, Ellen Reiss, asked me a very imaginative and kind question. “Do you think active good will for a woman is a religious pilgrimage?” Wow! I hadn’t seen it that way. I had my care for religion and my care for a woman in two completely separate parts of my mind. Miss Reiss continued: “Rosemary Plumstead is the creation made by the Lord you’ve chosen to be closest to you.…I’ll ask you a very secular question. Are you too selfish?” “Yes,” I said, “I know I am.”

Ellen Reiss. Do you dislike yourself for that?
Wayne Plumstead: Very much.
Ellen Reiss: We love a person because we want someone close to us through whom we can be fair to the world in all its wideness. There is nothing greater we want or need.

I am enormously grateful to Ellen Reiss for educating and strengthening the best thing in me. I have come to see the opportunity of knowing Rosemary as a joyous thing essential to my life. Today I have the great happiness of being able to feel what Mr. Siegel described: “Through what you do and what you are and what you can do, I can come to be more I, more me, more myself.” With every day of our marriage, I see how much I need Rosemary to become the person I was born to be.

Here is but one everyday instance. As we were walking to our car one day Rosemary said: “Wayne, look at this!” I turned to see a magnificent flowering bush in proud purple. “Look,” she said, “at how those stems rise up to support those dozens of tiny, dainty petals—and how they overflow in that graceful, downward curve.” We spoke about how, even as those flowers were so delicate and yielding, they asserted themselves in their bold color and manyness. I had a new sense of wonder at seeing the structure and beauty of reality. As Ellen Reiss said to me: “We love a person because we want someone close to us through whom we can be fair to the world in all its wideness.” That is why I love Rosemary so much!

We Always Need the Third Partner

In The Octopus, Hilma leaves the Queen Sabe ranch and moves to San Francisco. Norris describes the fight in Annixter between justifying his suspicions of her, “She was after his property.…What fathomless duplicity was here, that she could appear so innocent,” and his immense regret at his injustice to her.

He was…infinitely sorry.…He had hurt her.…He had so flagrantly insulted her.…An overwhelming sense of his own unworthiness suddenly bore down upon him with crushing force.…He had been mistaken from the very first.

Alone, and looking out at the vast expanse of his wheat fields, Annixter thinks about the rest of his life without Hilma, and he realizes how much he needs her. Norris writes:

There was presented to his mind’s eye a picture of the years to come, if he now should follow his best, his highest, his most unselfish impulse.…He giving himself to her as freely, as nobly, as she had given herself to him.…In that moment into his harsh, unlovely world a new idea was born.…He opened his arms wide. An immense happiness overpowered him. Actual tears came to his eyes. Without knowing why, he was not ashamed of it. [In] this poor, crude fellow…with his unlovely nature, his fierce truculency, his selfishness,…the great vivifying eternal force of humanity…burst into life.…The little seed, long since planted, gathering strength quietly, had at last germinated.…"Why, I love her,” he cried. Never until then had it occurred to him. Never until then, in all his thoughts of Hilma, had that great word passed his lips.

Don't you admire Annixter here! He looks strong and wise. What Norris describes as “the vivifying eternal force of humanity” is the desire to like the world coming alive in Annixter. He sees that he wants big emotions, not tepid ones. This is the only honest way to feel about our need for others: that it is the greatest victory of our lives.

Annixter hurries to San Francisco to find Hilma, and as Norris describes his apology and proposal of marriage, we see him asserting himself and yielding at once. “I know what love means now,” he says, "and instead of being ashamed of it, I’m proud of it. Whether you’ll let me marry you or not, I mean to live…in a different way.…I don’t want to be hard any more.…I’m happy and I want other people so. Hilma tenderly puts her arms around Annixter’s neck and says: “You will be my dear, dear husband.”

The world, Mr. Siegel explained, is the third partner in every relationship of two people. When we don’t like the world, we are either aloof or grabbing. In The Octopus we see the ugly grabbing of land and massive contempt for humanity, which profit economics has always encouraged, in the Pacific and Southwest Railroad, which charges exorbitant prices to ship the farmers’ grain in order to drive them into bankruptcy and foreclose on their farms. When a desperate farmer named Dyke steals from the railroad in order to survive, is then discovered and must flee, it is Annixter who thinks about Dyke’s elderly mother and young daughter, who are about to become homeless. “We’re so…happy ourselves,” he tells Hilma, “it won’t do for us to forget about other[s].” He suggests that Mrs. Dyke and the child move onto their farm. “Hilma,” Norris writes, “put down the plates…and kissed him without a word.”

Norris tells how Hilma has become an essential bridge for Annixter to caring for all people more:

Where once [he] thought only of himself…now [his thought] broadened to enfold another child and another mother bound to him by no ties other than those of humanity and pity. In time, starting from this point it would reach out more and more till it should take in all men and all women, and the intolerant selfish man, while retaining all of his native strength, should become tolerant and generous, kind and forgiving.

With its intimacy and great width this is so beautiful—and it is true romance! It is two people affirming their greatest need as stated by Eli Siegel: “to see the world in a fair way, an accurate way, and one that goes toward, as much as possible, liking the world.”

Eli Siegel’s hope to respect the world and know it fully made him the most original, learned, truly expressed and kindest person I have ever had the privilege to know, and I believe the education he came to is needed by the people of the world now.

What is our greatest need? It is to know and like the world—a need which for me has been magnificently met through my study of Aesthetic Realism. And love can and certainly should be a beginning point in liking the world. When this occurs, love will be a source of pride and lasting pleasure, and that is what every person is deeply hoping for in caring for another person.

* The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, #1000, June 3, 1992



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