Alice Bernstein and mastheads

As published in the Tennessee Tribune.

Everything in This World Has Meaning

I have learned from Aesthetic Realism, the education founded in 1941 by the great philosopher and poet Eli Siegel, what all people need to know: that everything in this world has meaning. Irene and Dan Reiss  
        "Meaning," Mr. Siegel explained, "is the beautiful
relation of something to the world, and the beautiful way in
which it contains the world."
         I learned that a sheet of paper, a broken sidewalk, a sunset, every object in our kitchen, and every person contains the world and has meaning because it is composed of reality's opposites — such as hard and soft, dark and light, rough and smooth. To want to see the meaning people and things have is equivalent to our deepest desire, which Aesthetic Realism shows is to like the world. And it shows, too, that there is that in us which is against seeing meaning in anything — contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world."
        When I had the good fortune to begin my study in 1947, I learned that, like all people, I had these two conflicting desires — to like the world and to have contempt for it. During the Depression years of the 1930's, I was very much affected by the worry and fear in my family about being able to make ends meet, and the suffering of other people. It mattered to me that people were being treated so unfairly. I felt our economic system was cruel and unjust, but I did not see then what I later learned, that the profit motive itself is inherently evil because it is based on contempt, on a person's denying meaning to the feelings and lives of people in order to extract from their labor all the profit possible.
        And I didn't know it, but the everyday way I saw people was like the unjust way of seeing people in economics that I was so much against. For instance, I used the confusion and pain between my parents, and the excessive devotion of my older sister (which I exploited) to feel that this was a mixed-up world and things had little meaning. I saw people mainly in terms of how they were to me: if they approved of me, and were "nice," they were good, and if they didn't make me important they were mean.
        I thought that what would make me happy and solve all my questions was a man who would praise me and take care of me. But also I hoped, as women do, that through a man, life would have more meaning. When I met Dan Reiss, who was so different from me — he was interested in the outdoors, horses, auto trips — I thought my life would be richer and more exciting, and it was.
        Unfortunately, we did what other couples have done — we made an exclusive world for ourselves, feeling meaning should come only from each other, not from the world or other people; and soon, we both became very dissatisfied and pained.
        In his great lecture Aesthetic Realism and Love, Mr. Siegel explains why: "Love for a person is love for persons, love for humanity, a love for reality, and if it isn't that, the thing is a phony." In the first years of our marriage, Dan and I encouraged in each other suspicion of and disdain for people, the very thing which is against love for humanity. We would spend many weekends at the newly-acquired home of Dan's relatives in Queens, and as they talked against their neighbors we would join in, encouraging their contempt, and add what we saw as our "keen insight" into the selfishness of people.
        We made no connection between these conversations and the fact that after these visits we felt empty and let down. When we began to study Aesthetic Realism in 1947, we had been married nine years and were bored and very angry with each other, and at the same time we disliked ourselves. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson I was privileged to have, Mr. Siegel said to me:
Getting meaning is the opposite of contempt. Contempt is giving little
meaning to something, making it small.... Reality is in our minds to be
taken care of. This means to see it as more beautiful, as having more
meaning. The tendency is to put out one's tongue. Did you ever wish
that you think better of people?

I am sorry to say I had not, and Mr. Siegel said:
If a person finds meaning in the world she'll find meaning in her
husband. [And he also said:] When you truly love somebody,
you love the comfy and the spacious.

As my husband and I attended Aesthetic Realism lessons and lectures taught by Mr. Siegel — about world literature including Shakespeare, all the arts and sciences, people in history, and the cultures of every continent — the whole world, which I had gone further and further away from, opened up to me. For the first time I began to see that there is no limit to the meaning I could see in things and people through seeing how the opposites are in them — and that these same opposites were in myself. The reason is in this principle of Aesthetic Realism: The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.
        I am so glad to be seeing new meaning in the world, people, and in my husband Dan Reiss — how he is related to the whole world, how he has the opposites of toughness and tenderness, sureness and unsureness. We will soon celebrate our 63rd wedding anniversary and because of what we're learning still, our marriage is fresh and alive. I have come to feel the world is coherent, makes sense, and that it has more meaning than I had ever dreamed, and I have never again felt lonely and bored.
        Now, as an Aesthetic Realism consultant, I have the honor to teach other women what I have, and am, learning. I feel my life is useful, rich, and meaningful. What I learned is what people are learning in consultations at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.