Most people don’t understand why they are unhappy–I certainly didn’t. Growing up in Pound Ridge, NY, and later studying international politics at George Washington University, I thought my biggest problem was my shyness, the fact that I couldn’t connect with other people. That, I told myself, was why I felt so lonely and separate. Studying Aesthetic Realism, I learned that what I felt was only “my problem” is about the biggest philosophic matter in the life of everyone: how we can be ourselves, and get along with what is not ourselves. This illuminating and hopeful essay by Eli Siegel begins:
The essential problem of all people is decidedly simple and illimitedly complex. The problem is so simple it has the obviousness of just being awake, or the word the, or the idea and the word go. We look at ourselves and we see that we are; and then after looking at ourselves we find that there is something besides ourselves. And our problem, our simple problem, is to get along with what is not ourselves. We are; something else is: what shall we do about it? That is the problem of everyone, and has been since anyone existed or was anyone. We don’t know how big the answer to this problem can be. No one knows how much we can get along with what is not ourselves. And just what does “get along with” mean? Besides, we have to ask what we are. Oh, yes, the problem is simple; but when it is looked at, it has a tendency to lead to places you don’t expect.
There are two general ways to deal with the problem everyone has. One is to find out what is not ourselves, and the other is to forget about it. To find out what is not ourselves is the big thing in knowledge. Finding out what the world is, is the largest matter in history. Finding out what the world is has to go on in some manner once we are born. Assuming that the world we find out about does not please us, discomforts us—it can be expected that the other procedure, forgetting about it, be followed.
It is pretty clear that everyone has been disappointed with what is not himself. If he goes on finding out about what has disappointed him, it means he is still interested in what has given him pain. Certainly it isn’t surprising, if a person gets pain from something, that his interest be lessened.
There isn’t a clear way of getting along with what is not ourselves unless we find out about what is not ourselves. But we are pained by what is not ourselves. So our problem comes to this: how, though we are pained by the world, can we not be so disheartened that our desire to find out about it be lessened? Our problem includes the making of a just relation between knowledge and comfort. <<Read more