Power and Kindness: Do They Have To Fight?
Like many women, I once felt that the way I wanted to be kind and also have power were as different as oil and water, they didn’t mix. There were times I would want to do good things for people, and thought about being a missionary or joining the peace corps. Yet at other times I could imagine myself getting a tough man on a Harley Davidson motorcycle to melt in my arms. As a child growing up in Springfield, Missouri, I felt kind when a stray dog would come to our home and I gave it food and a place to sleep. But I also liked the feeling of getting my dog Trixie to cower in front of me, and then I felt cruel and ashamed.
It was a revolution in my life when I began to learn from Aesthetic Realism that the only way a woman will feel that power and kindness do not have to fight, is if her purpose in every aspect of life—in love, at a job, with the family—is to want other people to be stronger through how she affects them.
In Self and World,
Tonight I will tell something of what I learned about the fight between power and kindness in my own life and in aspects of the 1979 movie, “Norma Rae.”
As a girl I liked music and spent hours listening to records on my phonograph. On Saturday nights my Grandfather and I watched gospel quartets on television. I thought it was beautiful how the distinct voices of four men—from the low bass to the high tenor—blended together. I wanted my voice to affect people well and I took voice lessons, sang in the school chorus, and performed musical skits for my parents in the summer with my girlfriend Donna. This was an example, I later learned from Aesthetic Realism, of my deepest desire: to like the world.
But I also was competitive. In 7th grade chorus I compared myself to other students thinking “Jane’s better than me, but I’m better than Cindy.” And I would inwardly gloat when someone made a mistake. Meanwhile, I felt so unsure of myself that when the teacher asked me to sing a solo for a school assembly, I couldn’t.
I didn’t think that being kind made me important. Having a big affect on people while feeling superior and unaffected was a fast thrill which I preferred more and more. At 12 when my Grandmother Ellison gave me her credit cards, I felt powerful telling the saleslady to “charge it.” I bragged to friends that my father raced thoroughbred horses, and my family owned their own business, a nursing home. Yet in my mind the important thing wasn’t the care of the elderly residents or the working conditions of employees, but the fact that a portrait of me at age ten in a floor length yellow chiffon formal hung in the entryway for all to admire.
“Every person”, Mr. Siegel explained, “is troubled by the drive towards good power and by the simultaneous drive towards bad power.” Good power, he explained is “anything that makes you and the world more beautiful.” All bad power “comes from an insufficient love of what is not oneself.”.
.In an Aesthetic Realism lesson Mr. Siegel described the power a woman can want over a man:
That women go after this kind of power can be seen in the number of current books with titles like The Fine Art of Flirting and How To Flirt Outrageously, a Step by Step Guide to Bewitching a Man. I was a flirt and didn’t need a book to learn how. I practiced how to have the most imploring look, how to toss my hair in that nonchalant way, and I would arrange to be in the right place at the right time for the right man to just “happen” to see me. Yet I didn’t see young men as having hopes and feelings when I called college fraternity houses and asked for Michael--there was always a Michael. I would pretend to be interested in him up to the point he wanted to meet me, then hang up.
One night passing the barbecue grill at an apartment complex where I lived, I alluringly said to a man cooking steaks, “apartment H15, medium well.” At one o’clock in the morning he showed up at my door and later there was sex. The advice I got from the women’s magazines I read, was to be liberated and join the “sexual revolution.” But they didn’t tell me why the next morning I felt so cheap, and why as I looked at myself in the mirror I wanted to break it.
When I began to study Aesthetic Realism in 1979 I began to learn that the reason I didn’t like myself was because I wasn’t true to my deepest purpose—to be fair to the world and people. In an early consultation I spoke about a man whose attentions I was desperate to get, and said “I would like to just deal with a man on a level that’s not this game business, you know.” They asked: .
.I was! And referring to my care for the art of sculpture, they asked:
I began to learn that the power of art is always kind because its purpose is to be fair to an object, to see it with respect and form. The power I felt affecting a man as I kept him guessing was contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as the desire to lessen “what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” And I began to be educated about what kindness truly is when my consultants read this Definition by Mr. Siegel:
To see my relation to things, and very much men, I was given assignments to write for example “Do I See Men Accurately?” “Ten Men I’ve Known and What They Really Think of Me” and “What I Can Learn From Men.” I studied men in literature, respected and loved for their strength and kindness, like George Eliot’s Adam Bede and Sydney Carton in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I began to see that what a man most hopes for is like what I, or any woman hopes for—to have a purpose with the world and people that he likes himself for. And for the first time I felt it was possible to be deeply affected by a man and have a good affect on his life.
This today, I am studying together with my husband of 7 years, Jaime Torres, in Aesthetic Realism classes, and learning more with each week what it means to be truly kind makes me so happy. I love Jaime, who is originally from Puerto Rico and who is a podiatrist, for his passionately wanting all physicians to study Aesthetic Realism and for the important articles he has written about how good will, the real thing, has to be the basis of health care in America. Jaime strengthens my life every day through his encouragement, his deep and kind humor, and his criticism which I am happy to need to be the person I hope to be.
Before meeting Aesthetic Realism the fight in me between power and kindness crippled my ability to truly care for a man. Many women have the notion, as I did, that love means being the most important thing in a man’s life. And this is what I felt in a previous marriage that ended in divorce. In 1971 when I married my first husband, whom I’ll call Jim Travis, he was a sophomore in college majoring in economics, which I respected. For a person who had seen myself as a princess who should be taken care of, I felt proud and kind getting a secretarial job so that he could devote himself to school full time.
But I also wanted to have my way. At a time when finances were tight I talked Jim into using money he’d saved for a truck that he needed, to instead buy an antique roll top desk I felt I just had to have. Determined I told him “it was a steal” a chance of a life time, and just what he needed for his study. And I also said what women have used for centuries to have power over a man: “if you really loved me you would want me to have it.” We got the desk, but I felt awful. He once told me, “Why do you ask me anything, you do what you want anyway.” I was worried about how narrow, selfish, and cold I had become, but I didn’t know how to change.
After college when Jim got a management job with a trucking firm I felt we were flying high as we dined in fancy restaurants on the company expense account. But when he got fired for objecting to how the company wanted to fire a man close to retirement because his age was slowing down work, which Jim felt was unjust, I was not kind. Instead of showing how much I respected him for doing the right thing, I gave him the message that my life was ruined and it was his fault. Bitterly I wept about whether we would be able to afford our lake cabin and how to tell friends the humiliating news.
Years later in an Aesthetic Realism class Ellen Reiss, whom I love for her great good will, brought new comprehension about the bad power driving me at this time in my life as she asked:
.I speak now about aspects of the film which won the actress Sally Field an academy award for her deep and radiant portrayal of Norma Rae. Based on a true story, it is about the fight between power and kindness as labor organizer, Reuben Warshowsky, played by Ron Leibman, tries to organize a union among the overworked and underpaid workers of a textile mill. Good power can be distinguished, Mr. Siegel explained, by asking:.
We see this bad power in the mill owners as they try to grind out as much work as they can while giving the workers as little as possible. Exploiting the fact that the mill provides the only jobs in this small Southern town, the working conditions are brutal. Men and women labor in stifling heat to the deafening roar of machines, while cotton dust permeates the air causing brown lung disease—which we learn has recently caused the death of one of the workers.
In Norma Rae we see a young woman worn down by hard work trying to eke out a living for herself and two children. A relation of spunk and resignation, we see that she is mixed up about power. We learn that there have been many men in her life. With a mingling of triumph and scorn she says about one man:.
And her father says to her:.
But Norma Rae also shows the self doubt and disgust a woman has, as I did, in going after this kind of power. After an affair she tells a man: “It just doesn’t sit well with me anymore George…. It just doesn’t make me feel good.”
.At the mill Norma Rae has spoken out for better working conditions, longer break time for workers. To shut her up the mill supervisor gives her a promotion and flatters her saying “You’re going up in the world honey.” And we see something of the struggle in her. The job is to time the productivity of mill workers. She knows the job won’t make her any friends because the purpose is to weed out the slow workers. But she needs the extra 1.50 an hour. With clipboard and stop watch in hand we see her walking about the mill with an air of importance, discomfort and shame, timing people as they work. When snubbed by coworkers Norma changes and tells the boss: “I was greedy… and I’m sorry, so you just go ahead and fire me.”
.I respect her decision to choose kindness over an ugly power. At a time when my father said if a union tried to organize the nursing home he would put it down, I didn’t object, even though I saw how hard the employees worked for minimum wage with no benefits. I didn’t want anything to interfere with the profit sharing check I got. And while I hadn’t done anything to earn this money, I selfishly felt it was my due. It means so much to me now to have feeling about people getting the economic justice they deserve. And I love my mother Beverly Burk, my colleague in the study of Aesthetic Realism and who is a nurse, for working passionately for justice to people during the 1985 1199 Health and Hospital workers strike in New York City.
.Norma Rae comes to see that a person is either on the side of justice, or exploitation and greed and she joins Reuben to help organize the union. She asks the minister to use the church for a union meeting for both black and white workers and if he doesn’t stand up for justice to all people says she’ll leave the church flat. His cold answer is, “We’re gonna miss your voice in the choir, Norma.” To which she replies “You’re gonna hear it raised up some place else!” And we do!.
.Aesthetic Realism taught me that kindness and power will work together in proportion to how much a woman wants to respect the world outside of her. And I am fortunate that my education continues. At a time when Jaime was doing important research on the computer, I had the common but ugly feeling women have had: “where am I in all this?” Then when Jaime asked me to accompany him to a dental appointment without profusely saying how much it would mean to him for me to go, I jumped at the chance to feel I was being taken for granted, unappreciated. In an Aesthetic Realism class when I spoke about this, Miss Reiss asked me if I was sure Jaime Torres had been so inconsiderate, and she said: .
This described what I felt! And it was what I had done with my parents and grandmother—acting like a little princess, and seeing this made it possible for me to have a different purpose. Part of this was feeling I wanted to study Spanish in order to known my husband better, and also be able to communicate with his family in Puerto Rico. In a class, Miss Reiss asked me: “Do you think that in learning Spanish, you’re closer to Dr. Torres?” I said, “Yes.” And Miss Reiss said something I have seen as true with every month, and so useful to me as a high school teacher of art and as a wife:.
To conclude this paper I will speak briefly about one of the most beautiful examples of power and grace in the history of sculpture—the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Power, said Mr. Siegel as I earlier quoted, “is likewise the ability to be affected or changed.”
Originally presented at a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, New York City.