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Lynette Abel


Real Kindness Is Criticism
From an Aesthetic Realism Public Seminar
by Lynette Abel

    At age twenty, if someone had asked me if I wanted to be kind, I certainly would have said yes, but I didn't feel I was kind.  Though I could go out of my way to help a friend, I essentially felt I was selfish and cold to people--my college roommates, my family, the men I knew.  I was longing to know, what I have learned from Aesthetic Realism: that real kindness is a critical and intellectual achievement that makes for the happiness and self-respect we are hoping to have.  In his great work Definitions, and Comment: Being a Description of the World, Eli Siegel explains: 

    "Kindness is that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased....To be kind is honestly to think of what another person, or other persons, truly desire.  If we do not take the trouble to find this out, or do not want to take the trouble, our "kindness is so much not kindness.   Kindness is accuracy...." 
     Aesthetic Realism teaches that every person's deepest desire is to like the world.  And in order to be kind, I learned, we have to be critical, to want to know and be for what will strengthen a person's like of the world and be against that which weakens every person most, the desire for contempt, "the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it."  The greatest kindness came to me from Eli Siegel and Realism: when I heard exact criticism of my contempt, my life began anew.  I was able to see people and things, at last, in a way I could be proud of. 

The Mix-up about Kindness Begins Early

      Growing up, in Alexandria, Virginia, I came to have the customary notion of kindness as doing nice things, like offering to wash the dishes or lending a skirt to my sister.  I equated kindness, as many people do, with getting praise and giving it.

      And I used my family’s praise to feel I was special and I had a right to look down on other people. 

      I remember many times driving through an area called Gum Springs on my way to downtown Alexandria.  The people who lived there were very poor and their houses were dilapidated shacks, many with broken windows and some without doors. I remember thinking scornfully about them: I was callous to the depths of other people, whom I saw as so different from myself.  That people, fellow human beings, had to endure these deplorable conditions is shameful!  The fact is, that they were forced to, as people are today, because of an unjust, brutally unkind economic system which allows only some people to live comfortably while others live in abject poverty.  And I needed so much to know what Eli Siegel explains in his lecture Mind and Kindness

    "Deep in the meaning of the word kind is a feeling that through being born there is a relation to everything which is also born or existing....Any person who isn't kind, in the real sense of the word, is a person who is hurting himself.  I mean by kind, a proper awareness of all things that are in any way like you."
I did not have "a proper awareness" of the feelings of people--my friends, men I knew, my family.  And I didn't know that my unkindness was the reason I felt painfully nervous around just about everyone. 

      At Florida State University, I studied English literature and sociology, but I also was after glory for myself and wanted to forget about the world.  This took in how I saw men.  Like my family, I saw men as existing for the purpose of praising and making me important.  When my boyfriend, Tom Welsh, was drafted during the Vietnam war, and stationed in the Pacific Islands, though we had discussed marriage, he wanted to wait until he got back.  Instead of being interested in what, for instance, he felt, and how I could encourage him, I was hurt and felt I had a right to be unkind.  So while I wrote him praising letters, telling him how much I loved and missed him, all along I was dating other men.  But as I went after what I saw as the most glorious thing--having a number of men interested in me at once, I disliked myself intensely.  I felt agitated and my thoughts were so distracted that I couldn't concentrate on my studies.

     One day I received a flattering poem from Tom titled "To the Woman I Love," which began: "I love a beautiful woman, a woman who loves,” and ended, "The woman I love is complete...."  Though this was what I thought I wanted to hear most from a man, after I read it, I felt awful.  I knew it wasn't really me he was describing, and I thought he was foolish.  What I was desperate for was not utter praise, but accurate criticism of where I was unjust.  I met this some years later in Aesthetic Realism. 

 We Are Looking for Criticism

      For example, in a class Mr. Siegel explained centrally what had caused me so much pain: "You can participate in something while not believing in it--isn't that a description of your life, Miss Abel?"  It was.  In another class, he asked me: "Do you think your chief hurt in life comes from having two motives: justice and glorification?"  "Yes" I replied.  He said: "Justice should always win over glorification, because glorification is a garbage can....You will never feel good unless you feel kindness and good will are good sense."

       I thank Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism for enabling me to change from an uninterested, self-absorbed person, to a person  who now sees wanting to know and strengthen other people, including my husband, Michael Palmer, as a kind necessity and pleasure. 

 Jane Addams' Life Shows Real Kindness Is Criticism

      Eli Siegel defined kindness as: "that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased."  And in the comment to it, he explains: "A person is kind who feels a sense of likeness to other things; who accepts accurately his relation to other things." These sentences comment deeply on what impelled the important American social reformer, Jane Addams, who lived from 1860-1935.  She showed in a big way, from which every person can learn, that we are kind when we are critical of injustice wherever it is.  In 1889, with Ellen Starr, she founded Hull House, in Chicago's West Side slums, one of the first social settlements in the United States.  She felt there were basic necessities every person deserved to have, and it was her obligation to have people get them.  "It is natural to feed the hungry and care for the sick," she wrote of her purpose. "It is certainly natural to give pleasure to the young, [and] comfort the aged...."  Jane Addams saw the feelings of immigrant workers as real--something many people did not--how their lives were being brutally exploited for profit in Chicago's factories. 

Jane Addams      Jane Addams was born in 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois, the eighth child of Sarah and John Addams.  When she was two years old, her mother died, after giving birth to her ninth child.  Her father, who was a member of the state senate, was a friend of Abraham Lincoln and was himself a fervent abolitionist.  He remarried when Jane was seven.  Their family was well-off and Jane had many advantages other children didn't.  In her autobiography, Twenty Years at Hull-House, she tells of being  shocked when, as a little girl, she saw "horrid little houses" in a neighboring town.  Unlike how I wanted to feel superior to people, when Jane saw the hideous conditions in which some persons were forced to live, she was critical and asked, "what could be done to make them less horrid?"  She wanted them "to be rightly pleased." 

We Need Criticism to Be Kind
      In her autobiography, Jane Addams tells of something that had a big effect on her whole life.  When she was 11, Jane came into her father's room and found him looking very solemn.  He told her that Joseph Mazzini, the great Italian patriot, was dead.  She grew argumentative, asserting that he didn't know Mazzini, and that Mazzini was not American, so why should we feel so bad?  Her father was critical, and told her that the feelings of people in another country had very much to do with the feelings of people in Illinois--just as there were " who are trying to abolish slavery in America," there were men trying to "throw off Hapsburg oppression in Italy."  She saw, she later wrote--though people may "differ in nationality, language, and creed," they "shared large hopes and like desires."  She said, "I came out of the room exhilarated." 

      Jane Addams graduated valedictorian from Rockford Seminary in 1881.  As she thought about what she wanted to do with her life, she traveled throughout Europe for a number of years in what she described as a "feverish search after culture."  But she didn't want, she said, just an "intellectual" life.  She was in a fight between the desire to be useful to people and a certain selfishness which she described as "a continued idleness...[a] going on indefinitely with study and travel."  Then one day, as a tourist, she witnessed in London, a Saturday night auction of decaying vegetables and fruit to poor people and it changed her life.  She wrote: 

"We saw two huge masses of ill-clad people clamoring around two hucksters' carts.  They were bidding their farthings and ha'pennies for a vegetable held up by the auctioneer, man...had [bid for] a cabbage, and when it struck his hand, he instantly...tore it with his teeth, devoured it, unwashed it was....[T]he impression was...of myriads of hands, empty, pathetic, nerveless and workworn,...clutching forward for food which was already unfit to eat.  I have never since been able to see a number of hands held upward, even when they are moving rhythmically in a calisthenic exercise, or when they belong to a class of chubby children who wave them in eager response to a teacher's query, without...this memory, a clutching at the heart reminiscent of the despair and resentment which seized me then." 
     That people had to depend for their sustenance on decaying food enraged Jane Addams and she felt an obligation to do something about it.  In September of 1889, she obtained a house on Halsted Street, in the slums of Chicago, and Hull House opened.  In his great lecture, "Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things: Seeing and Grabbing," Eli Siegel explains:
"Out of the feeling that owning has been disproportionate...has arisen the settlement movement,... Jane Addams...said that people were dealt with unjustly in terms of what they have and what other people have grabbed." 

     Jane Addams wanted to bring comfort to persons who were poor, but more than that she wanted to get rid of poverty.  Two important women, who worked with her at Hull House, were Florence Kelley, who did extensive investigation into the horrible conditions of the sweatshops, and Dr. Alice Hamilton, who became the foremost authority on work-related illnesses. 

     The Chicago of 1889 was teeming with industry--meat-packing, banking, manufacturing; (it isn't today, but not different from today) there was vast wealth and vast poverty.  Men and women worked 7 days a week, 12-14 hours a day, for wages they couldn't live on, and even little children worked long days for four cents an hour.  The surrounding neighborhood was described by a Hull-House investigator: 

 "...[L]ittle idea can be given of the filthy...tenements... and dilapidated outhouses, the piles of garbage fairly alive with diseased odors, and the numbers of children filling every nook, working and playing in every room,...pouring in and out of every door...." 

      Hull-House provided a day nursery and kindergarten to care for children of working mothers, a public kitchen, an employment bureau, and cooperative housing for young working girls.  A Theatre was begun and a music school.  "In the first year, 50,000 people came to the house," Biographer James Weber Linn wrote: "and it is no exaggeration to say that Jane Addams talked to most of them." 

 In his comment to the Definition of Kindness, Mr. Siegel writes: 

"If [a person] has the organic feeling that the being pleased of other things is the being pleased of himself, he is kind."
     This describes the feeling Jane Addams had--there wasn't any job she saw as beneath her if it meant having people's lives better off.  There were disease and death resulting from decaying garbage.  Garbage collection was not being enforced, and Jane Addams sent over 1,000 reports of violations of the law to the health department, and she got the mayor to appoint her Garbage Inspector.  Every day she was up at 6 am making sure the garbage collectors did their work, having to follow the loaded wagons to "their dreary destination at the dumps."

     In an Aesthetic Realism class in 1976, Mr. Siegel spoke about the large meaning of obligation and he asked me "Do you have any obligation?"  "Yes" I replied. 

 Eli Siegel.  Do you think you owe anything to people? 

 Lynette Abel.  I think I owe a great deal.

 Eli Siegel.  If you were on the subway and saw a woman ill, would you give her a seat? 

 Lynette Abel.  Yes....

 Eli Siegel.  If you can make anything stronger, would you want to do it?  If there were a smudge on the window would you want to brush it away? 

 Lynette Abel.  Yes.

 Eli Siegel.  Obligation comes from the desire to have the world better.  Obligation is in the nature of things; something can be better through something you do.  Good  will is a terrific obligation, present with every beat  of one's heart.  It is the most beautiful thing in the  world....Every person has to see obligation as expressing oneself.

      Jane Addams felt she had an obligation to have the world better.  When she learned at the first Christmas party at Hull-House, that a number of little girls refused candy, because they had been working 14 hours a day for 6 weeks in a candy factory and couldn't bear to look at it, she was shocked.  Then she learned of a boy who died in a factory accident which could have been prevented by a machine-guard costing a few dollars.  Jane Addams wrote: 
"We felt quite sure that the owners of the factory would share our horror and remorse, and that they would do everything possible to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy.  To our surprise they did nothing whatever." 
But Jane Addams did.  Through her work and that of others, on July 1, 1903 the Illinois child-labor laws were passed.  Relating Jane Addams' desire to uncover evil to the novelist Henry James, in the preface to James and the Children Mr. Siegel writes: 
"[Henry] James makes the unseen less unseen.  Here he is with St. Francis, William Godwin,  Christ,  John Brown, William Cobbett,  Jane Addams." 
"Kindness Is Accuracy."

      With all of Jane Addams' kindness and usefulness, there was something big she did not see at the time of an important occurrance in the history of labor--the Pullman Strike of 1894.  George M. Pullman, owner of the Pullman Palace Car Company, built a town for his employees which they had to live in.  Rents and services were exorbitant and biographer Allen Davis, writes "most of the apartments had no bathtub, [and] there was only one water faucet for every 5 units."  Seeing the lives and work of people as a means of making profit for oneself, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, is hideous, unkind contempt.  When in 1893, Pullman laid off a number of employees and cut the wages of those who remained, the workers were forced to go out on strike.  They appealed to the American Railway Union, newly organized by Eugene V. Debs for support, and got it.  The boycott of Pullman cars brought the entire national rail system to a standstill.  Florence Kelley and Ellen Starr were out on the picket lines.   President Cleveland sent in federal troops to break the strike.  34 people were killed, and over 700 were arrested, including Debs. 

      Jane Addams did not want to see clearly, unequivocally that Pullman was unjust, but instead referred to him as a "benevolent employer" and argued "there was blame on both sides...labor and management learn [to] work together."  She, like other social reformers, didn't see--what only Aesthetic Realism explains--that it was contempt which made for profit economics and its horrible effects, and that this same contempt is in every self and needs to be criticized.  In his lecture on Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things: Seeing and Grabbing, Eli Siegel explained "[The Settlement movement] was a way of admitting injustice, but not admitting it too strongly."  In the late 19th century Jane Addams underestimated contempt; she was wrong in thinking employers could ever be fair to workers, while wanting to make a profit from them.

      However, as years went on, her interest "in what people deserve" became stronger, not weaker and extended out from Hull-House nationally and internationally.  In 1912, Jane Addams seconded Theodore Roosevelt's presidential nomination at the Progressive party convention.  "The Progressive Platform" she said "contains all the things I have been fighting for."  In her speech she said: 

"A great party has pledged itself to the protection of children, to the care of the aged, to the relief of overworked girls, to the safeguarding of burdened men." 
     In his historic lecture of June 12, 1970 called "What Is Working Now?" published in Goodbye Profit System: Update Eli Siegel discusses the Progressive Party platform, placing its important ethical value.  He explains: 
"[T]he reason the platform came to be is the desire to have good will as power....It is part of this century's history, and it has gone to make what we have now: the inability of the profit system to function the way it would like." 
      To her credit Jane Addams, felt she needed to do better.  At a large dinner in Chicago in 1927, when many speeches were given praising her for "her age-long quest for self-respect" and "a better and kindlier world," she replied self-critically: 
"I am very grateful for the affection and interest you have brought here this evening; yet in a way humiliated by what you say I am, for I know myself to be a very simple person, not at all sure I am right, and most of the time not right, though wanting to be; ...I can only hope that we may go on together, working...for the betterment of things,..." 
      In an Aesthetic Realism lesson of 1969 Eli Siegel spoke of what people are hoping for.  I conclude my paper with these sentences from it: 
"The need for criticism, that is, asking the world please world tell me where I'm incomplete is as fierce as the desire for milk....In the full sense of the word the self is comfortable in two ways: 1) It should have food and heat enough, the other is that its path seem to be fitting.  For instance, let's say a person is told "Look, you're on the wrong road now.  That is the one you want to take."  He had a notion before it might be the wrong road but once he's sure, he is more comfortable....Criticism and kindness are the same thing completely."