Originally presented at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, New York City
During my first two years of college at Stony Brook in Long Island, I became very excited about studying filmmaking. With my friend, David Kramer, we spent 16 hours shooting a two-minute animation starring a Tensor lamp as the hero, and a wire hanger with strands of yarn for hair as his leading lady. I especially liked the editing process–trying to bring together many pieces of footage to make a coherent whole. We were trying, as I was to learn from Aesthetic Realism years later, to put opposites together: oneness and manyness, unity and variety, truth and imagination. And these are the very opposites that a man is in the midst of as he goes after integrity in his life.
In a 1949 lecture, Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, said:
The first thing in integrity is that, whether you are at home in the kitchen or in school or in a club or on the street, you feel you are one person and that there is a unity of motive in everything you do.”
I’m grateful to speak about what Aesthetic Realism taught me: that the motive, or purpose that will integrate us is the hope to like the world outside ourselves, to respect it in as full and deep a way as we can. And the opposition to this in us–the thing that disintegrates us, causes us to feel scattered and unsure–is our desire for 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.”
Learning the difference between using my mind to have respect and using it to have contempt, has made the difference between the waffling, nervous person I was, and a man who feels, “I have a chance through the many things I meet to be more whole, more who I want to be!” I thank Eli Siegel for this knowledge, and for what I’ve learned and am learning now in classes taught with beautiful scholarship and kindness by Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss.
1. The Need for Integrity and What Interferes
Growing up in Yonkers, I loved singing in the choir in elementary school, feeling I was expressing my individual self and also blending in with many other voices. And in 10th grade, when we learned plane geometry, I was in awe at the definite, unchangeable axioms that are true about every triangle, rectangle, and circle. These were instances where I had respect for the world outside myself, and were in behalf of my integrity.
But there was also a big opposition to respect in me. I used the tumult and confusion I saw in my family to feel I was in an unlikable world I should protect myself and hide from. I found pretty early that simply by being well-behaved and agreeable, I could get lots of approval from most adults, even while feeling deeply cold and separate from the people giving me that praise. As my life went on, I wanted people to like me, while also secretly hoping they would slip up, show weakness of some kind, so I could mock them and feel superior. In geometry class, the same place I loved learning those axioms, when the teacher called on Bonnie Reynolds instead of me to answer a difficult problem, I remember thinking, “Get it wrong! Get it wrong!”
And I was ready to change the facts in order to make someone else look bad. In Junior High School, a substitute teacher who knew my sister, coming to my name in the attendance book asked, “Marion’s brother?” I felt like a big shot, getting laughs from classmates as I answered, “Yeah, and you know what she thinks of you, don’t you?” I later lied to my father, telling him this teacher had said of Marion, “You know what I think of her, don’t you?” I was shocked when my father became so furious he resolved to go to the principal the next morning and asked me first to swear I had told him exactly what happened. Though I stuck to my story, I felt a raging war going on inside me, but I never told my father I had lied. Decades later, I happened to meet the teacher’s wife by chance, and asked her to please apologize to him for me; but the regret I feel about it still burns. This was one instance where I got caught at something that was a staple with me–thinking I was a big shot by playing people off against each other, making them look cheap; and without knowing it, I was disintegrating myself. “Once we lie,” Mr. Siegel writes in his book James and the Children, “we are trying to take advantage of people….[A]s soon as we begin using the weakness of another with the hope that the person continues weak or foolish to maintain our own glory–there is nothing more ugly in this world.”
In college, I changed my major from Engineering to English to Theater to Biology to Religious Studies. I was worried by the way I would lose interest in things I had at first been so enthusiastic about. I felt scattered and purposeless, and despaired of this ever changing.
Then, in 1981, I heard about Aesthetic Realism and began to learn in consultations what stopped me from feeling I was an integrity. “Do you hope for much from people?” my consultants asked, and I said, “I think I see myself as having more understanding than other people, although I know that’s false. I think a lot of people are more simple than I am, when they’re not.” They said, “That’s very generous of you, Mr. Fennell, but do you think this attitude–which is contempt–hurts you in any way?”
I was beginning to see how much it did. My consultants encouraged me to study this question: “What will establish Kevin Fennell in this world: wanting to know other people and be known, or wanting to hide and fool people?” I saw that my thirst to feel superior to people while I acted like a well-meaning “good guy” was at the root of my feeling so counterfeit and hollow. And I began to have the honest pleasure and self-respect of wanting to know other people and have them know me, not to put on a show to one-up somebody else, but really to see another person and be seen. I’m grateful in these years to be learning how to have that unity of purpose Mr. Siegel described, with every situation and person I meet–including with the woman I love so much; my wife, Carol McCluer, and our daughter, Sara.
2. Integrity Means Being True to Yourself
In a class, Eli Siegel gave seven points under the heading, “The following things happen when you are being true to yourself.” These are the first two:
1. You try to find out what you most want and stick to that.
2. You try to please people, not by playing on their weakness, but by bringing out their desire to see.
The 1996 film, Jerry Maguire, written and directed by Cameron Crowe, is about the struggle in a man to be an integrity, “to find out what [he] most wants and stick to that.” The movie is told in flashback by Jerry Maguire—portrayed very well by actor Tom Cruise—a slick, attractive, exceedingly personable sports agent for a big multi-million-dollar agency. We watch him flattering athletes at sports events, flashing an insincere smile, telling them “I kill for you. I’m an animal for you”; pressuring owners to sign big contracts, and bragging about the deals he’s made.
Then Jerry is in a hospital room, visiting one of his clients, a hockey player who is regaining consciousness after suffering a concussion on the ice. His wife and son are there. The player says to the doctor, “I gotta play Sunday, Doc. I gotta get my bonus!” Jerry smiles reassuringly. His young son follows Jerry out to the elevator saying, “Mr. Maguire, it’s his fourth concussion. Shouldn’t somebody tell him to stop?” Jerry looks guilty, though he smiles and says patronizingly, “Hey. Hey. It would take a tank–it would take all five Super Trooper VR Warriors to stop your Dad, right?” The boy, looking stricken and disgusted, curses him and walks away. Jerry goes through a crisis of conscience. Narrating, he says, “I couldn’t escape one simple thought: I hated myself–I hated my place in the world.”
The thing this young go-getter is objecting to in himself is a purpose he has been going after that now looks ugly to him: the purpose at the heart of our profit economy, in which human beings are coldly seen as a means to someone else’s profit. Aesthetic Realism shows that no man can go along with this purpose and have integrity because it’s against what we most deeply want: to see other people with respect and good will. “Man was not made to be used by man for money; that’s all there is to it,” Eli Siegel said in a lecture in 1970, “It is a corruption. It is artifice….It is against the nature of Man.”
In the next scene, it is late at night, and we see that Jerry can’t sleep. But then he says:
Two nights later in Miami at our corporate conference, a breakthrough. Breakdown? Breakthrough. It was the oddest, most unexpected thing. I began writing what they call a Mission Statement–you know, a suggestion for the future of our company. Suddenly it was all pretty clear. The answer was fewer clients. Caring for them, caring for ourselves, and the games too. Starting our lives, really.
I think the reason this film was so popular is that Jerry Maguire shows the fight about whether integrity is an idealistic nuisance or pleasurable necessity. Jerry says: I’ll be the first to admit that what I was writing was somewhat touchy-feely–I didn’t care…. It was the me I’d always wanted to be. And we cheer him on, because he is trying to be true to the world outside himself and himself at once.
3. The Battle Between Coldness and Warmth
As the film continues, Jerry puts copies of his 25-page Mission Statement memo titled, “The Things We Think and Do Not Say (The Future of Our Business)” into the mailboxes of everyone in his company. The next morning, his co-workers applaud him. The company heads, however, do not, and promptly fire him. And the rest of the movie is about the intense struggle in Jerry between sticking to what he wrote, or going back to the cold, hidden faker he was before. He is in a fight about the third point in “On Being True to Yourself.” Mr. Siegel writes: “You try to see what is most beautiful to you as the big thing in yourself, and not the routine of the past.”
There are two people in Jerry’s life who are forces on behalf of his integrity. One is football player Rod Tidwell, the one athlete who remains Jerry’s client–acted hilariously and movingly by Cuba Gooding, Jr. Jerry and Rod become friends and are critical of each other in ways that do each other good.
Rod Tidwell is presented as lovable in many ways. He is a husband and father of a young child, and he is rightly furious about how he is seen and treated. The idea of professional teams “owning” their players and doing with them as they please, in its barbarity, is exactly in keeping with how workers in every field are seen in our now failed economy–as commodities to be used to make profit for someone else, and then discarded.
For the first time, Jerry tries to do what he had put forth in his Mission Statement: to really think about the life of an athlete he represents. After arranging for Rod to be in a TV ad for a car dealership, he sees Rod’s dignity is outraged by having to wear a silly outfit and mount a camel, and Jerry pulls him out of the commercial, even though he–Jerry– badly needs the money it would bring him. And although he understands more the just indignation Rod feels, Jerry also sees that Rod is letting that anger take him over, hurting his ability to play as well as he might. He tells Rod:
Let’s show them your pure joy of the game, let’s bury the Attitude a little. I’m telling you to be the best version of you, to get back to the guy who first started playing this game. Way back when you were a kid. It wasn’t just the money, was it?”
The other person who comes to be central in Jerry Maguire’s life is Dorothy Boyd, a secretary in his former firm, played wonderfully by Renee Zellweger. Dorothy, a single mother with a five-year old son, quits her job to go to work with Jerry because she loves his Mission Statement. She tells her sister, “I love him for the man he wants to be, and I love him for the man he almost is.” You feel she wants to be true to the best thing in both Jerry and herself.
Jerry begins to care for Dorothy, and also for her little boy. But we see that he is in a terrific fight between wanting to be affected deeply by her and also being cold, feeling he doesn’t need her at all. Rod Tidwell sees Jerry’s aloofness and encourages him to be honest. “You’ve got to have the talk,” he says. “If you don’t love her, you’ve got to tell her….A real man would not shoplift from a single mother.” Jerry tries to resolve this fight in himself by asking Dorothy to marry him. Yet he soon grows colder, she is very hurt, and they are both agonized.
I have learned that the desire for contempt is the thing that makes it impossible for us to feel we are an integrity in love. The worst thing in us can resent needing a woman and the world she represents. Early in my marriage to Carol, I was troubled by a sense of distance between us, but I didn’t have the courage to question myself on where I had to do with it. Instead, I did what so many men have done: I got angry.
When I spoke about this in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss asked me questions that had me see what I felt was my personal agony in relation to men all over America. For example, she asked:
Ellen Reiss: Do you think a man in Topeka now, engaged to marry a woman–do you think there could be something in him hoping she mean less?
Kevin Fennell. Yes, I do.
Ellen Reiss. Do you think you are in a terrific fight between having large feeling and small feeling–between whether you should care for anything outside yourself?
I said yes. A situation I had been seeing so narrowly, took on a width; and I felt both relieved and hopeful, because I knew I could change. Ms. Reiss said to me:
A person comes into the world not to love himself, but to like the world–and that includes a woman as part of that world, and standing for it.
I thank Ms. Reiss for showing me what I needed to see. This discussion changed my life and marriage. As I have the opportunity every day to know Carol, and want her to know me, I have feelings bigger and sweeter than I ever imagined. I love Carol very much for the depth of her mind, her beauty, her seriousness in wanting to have a good effect on people, for her thrilling work as an actress in dramatic presentations here; and for her desire to have Aesthetic Realism known by all people. Knowing her has made me more myself.
4. Integrity Is the World Completing Us
Dorothy and Jerry painfully agree to separate. Some time later, at a big Monday night game, Rod Tidwell finally shows that “pure joy of the game” that Jerry had called to in him. He finally gets the contract he had been hoping for, and he is grateful to his friend, Jerry. As Jerry experiences a happiness and pride he has never had before, he yearns to talk Dorothy. He goes to her sister’s house where she is staying, and enters a roomful of women engaged in a discussion group about men. The women all stop talking as he says to her:
Tonight our project–our company–had a very, very big night. But it wasn’t complete, wasn’t nearly close to being in the same vicinity as complete, because I couldn’t share it with you. I couldn’t hear your voice, or laugh about it with you. I missed my wife. We live in a cynical world, and we work in a business of tough competitors….I love you. You complete me.”
The world, Eli Siegel explained, is the other half of ourselves. To have true integrity, to be wholly himself, a man has to see—happily and lovingly–his relation to every thing and person that exists. Through the kind and practical education, Aesthetic Realism, men everywhere can.
Learn more: AestheticRealism.org