What Do Fathers and Sons Really Want From Each Other?

My life changed deeply and beautifully because I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the way we think about people, how we see them is crucial for our happiness. And the reason is: our deepest desire is to like the world, see it truly, and every person, and very much a parent, represents that wide, vast world.

The way every person most wants to be seen and thought about was described by Eli Siegel when he said:

“People are reality when most complete; reality when aware of itself. The importance of people is that they are reality in the richest form. We cannot afford to despise reality. If we do, we are giving ourselves poison….The important thing about people–with all their weaknesses, hypocrisies, mistakes, meannesses, lazinesses, grudgingnesses, inertias, pretences–is, they are real. If, after much fuss and evolution, reality took the form of people, we have to respect that happening.”

Once, I was a cold snob who contemptuously dismissed most of humanity, beginning with my father, as beneath me. And like many persons, I had no idea that the way I thought about people had anything to do with why I didn’t like myself. I saw them superficially, only in terms of myself—if someone didn’t praise me, they were against me?

“[A] phase of disrespect,” Mr. Siegel explains in The Right Of “…is the unwillingness to see someone as having an inner life he is aware of. The most fashionable way of not giving respect to a person is not giving him full, busy, deep consciousness.”

I.  How We Think about the First People in Our Lives?

By about the age of seven, I had made up my mind that I didn’t like my father, Sam Weiner. Even while he could sometimes swing me in his arms, and was gentle when I was sick, I saw him as remote and gruff and as sternly “laying down the law.” I wasn’t interested in what my father’s worries were; I felt that he was against me–and, without knowing it, I used him to make a case against the world and other people. I was so far away from seeing Sam Weiner in the beautiful, deep way Eli Siegel saw what a father feels and goes through. In “Mind and Fathers,” he writes:

“Fathers do have two motives towards their children. They cannot, as father, admit that they’re confused. They cannot see that a child is after the same thing they are. They cannot, therefore, put together pride and humility, the desire to learn and the desire to teach.” (349, 4)

Early in my father’s life, his own father abandoned their family, and Sam Weiner had to go to work in his teens to help support his mother and mentally ill brother. Every once in a while I had a glimmer of feeling for what my father had been through, but these moments were few, and forgotten by me as soon as he raised his voice. “There he goes again,” I would say under my breath.

I never even attempted to understand what my father felt about the hostility and coldness between him and my mother. Instead, I encouraged her and my two brothers to be angry with him: and tried to convince them that we would be better off if he left and never came back.

Since I had a tremendous “unwillingness” to think about my father’s “inward life,” I missed the fact that he didn’t like himself for the way he was ill-natured and aloof. Like most sons, I spent a lot of time trying to prove how different I was from him, how much better. “I’ll never be like him,” I often said. Both of us would learn years later that we deeply agreed the world was unfriendly, and that we should have little to do with other people–and this attitude was what caused both of us much pain.

As much as I tried to blame my father for everything wrong in my life–my unhappiness and unsureness, I felt very guilty about him. That, I learned, is inevitable when we are unfair to a person. I was extremely nervous in my father’s presence and could never look him in the eye. And because I didn’t want and didn’t know how, to be a critic of my ill will, there was another emotion I couldn’t make sense of. In Self and World, Mr. Siegel explains:

Since [the feeling of guilt] is unbearable, we may change the sense that the cause of the pain is in ourselves to the sense that it is caused by an external object. Once, however, we see the world as giving us pain, we can see it as giving us pain in the future. This has to do with the existence of a pervasive, vague and constant fear….

I had that “pervasive” fear. But I never made any association between sneering at my father and then cowering before him; how I spoke disparagingly of him, and then would get anxious at the thought of facing him again.

II. I Learned What My Father Most Wanted From Me

In the Aesthetic Realism classes I attended, Mr. Siegel was a kind critic of how I saw people. In one class, he asked me what I had most against my father, and I said he was tyrannical and also aloof. Mr. Siegel then asked:

ES: So, because he was not interested in you, you paid him back by not being interested in him?

SW: That’s what I’ve done.

ES: Is that wise? When you retaliate, make sure the effect is good on you.

I began to see it wasn’t wise. And starting with my father, I learned what he and every person most hope for—to be seen deeply, from within—as a relation of sameness and difference from other people. Mr. Siegel also asked me:

ES: Do you think that when your father quarreled with your mother, he felt his knowledge of women was insufficient?

SW: He must have.

ES: Do you think he had some reason for self-doubt?

This was a revelation! It had never occurred to me that my father could be unsure about anything. “I think so,” I said.

Mr. Siegel continued:

ES: Did he know how to use his doubt of himself?

SW: No.

ES: Do you know how?

SW: I don’t.

I thank Mr. Siegel for the way he encouraged me to be fair to the depths of Sam Weiner.

I’ll never forget the day I asked Sam Weiner questions about his life–and how amazed he was to see the son who had been so scornful, really interested in him! He told me later that that was the first time “You treated me like I was a human being.” He was so affected by how I had changed that he began to have Aesthetic Realism consultations to learn about himself. In time, we were able to talk deeply with each other, and he trusted me more because he saw I wanted to know him. I no longer felt intimidated; and even began to have a sense of humor with him. Through Mr. Siegel’s good will, I came to love Sam Weiner. As the way I thought about my father changed so did the way I saw people as such. Instead of being driven to prove I was superior, I saw that I liked myself much more for being interested in people, and trying to make them stronger.

III. He Used His Father to Hate the World

The 1993 film In the Name of the Father deals largely with the turbulent relation between a young Irish man, Gerry Conlon and his father, Guiseppe. I feel the film itself is confused about the long, brutal conflict between Northern Ireland and England, which I say carefully will not end until Aesthetic Realism is studied. Meanwhile, for the purpose of this paper, I will speak about one aspect of it – the deep fight that goes on in this son between seeing his father fairly and having wholesale contempt for him.

In “Aesthetic Realism and People,” Mr. Siegel said:

“Before you start hating anybody, try to understand what makes him confused, and you will find, perhaps, that there is more confusion than just animosity. Very few people are given to animosity and nothing else. They’re trying to be happy, and somewhere they meet confusion.”

Based loosely on a true story, Gerry, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is a reckless and insolent petty thief living in war-torn Belfast, in Northern Ireland in 1974. We see early that Gerry is confused by and very angry with his father, Guiseppe, a quiet, hardworking man, played by Pete Postlethwaite – who he sees as righteous and severely judgmental.

Hoping to keep Gerry out of trouble, Guiseppe, who suffers from a respiratory illness resulting from his work in a factory, sends him to London to stay with an aunt. When Gerry is boarding the ferry, his father handing him some cash, says “Go then son. Remember, honest money goes further.” Then Gerry does what so many sons have, he mocks his father, saying to himself: “Honest money goes further. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Never look a gift horse in the mouth. He had a cliché for every occasion. I had to run up the gangplank to get away from him.” But Gerry feels remorseful, and tries to call “Goodbye, Da” to his father, who by this time is out of earshot.

Soon after Gerry arrives in London, a local pub is bombed and people die. Because he is Irish and poor and in the wrong place at the wrong time, the English police assume Gerry is guilty, and under tremendous pressure from an outraged public to find the bombers, they try to torture him into confessing. But it is only when they threaten to have his father killed, that Gerry signs a paper saying he is guilty.

One of the film’s most moving scenes illustrates what Aesthetic Realism explains: there’s a tremendous desire on the part of a person to use another person close to us, very often a member of our family, to hate whole world and despise other people. In an Aesthetic Realism Lesson, Mr. Siegel spoke to a young man about the fight that went on in him between seeing his father a friend, but also as his “greatest enemy.” These two ways of seeing, Mr. Siegel explained:

“Instead of being an opportunity for people, make them feel the whole world is false, because the person who is for you [you] also [see] as so much against you….We come to the conclusion, ‘My parent doesn’t make sense; therefore the universe is senseless.’”

This, I have learned, is clearly an inaccurate and hurtful conclusion, and it is not inevitable! A father wants to be used to know the world, and to like it–not as a justification for being against everything and everyone. But that is just what Gerry Conlon has done.

Gerry is in jail awaiting trial, when suddenly, the cell door opens, and his father is brought in. “What the hell are you doing here?” Gerry asks in rage. Giuseppe tells him that on his arrival in London to find him a lawyer, he was arrested as a conspirator in the bombing. Gerry’s immediate reaction is gratitude to his father but he swiftly changes it into fury, and goes on a tirade, saying:

Ge: Why do you always follow me when I do something wrong?

Gu: What are you talking about?

And then Gerry brings up a memory from his childhood.

Ge: I’m talking about the medal.

Gu: What medal?

Ge: The only medal that I ever won–at soccer. And you sat on the sidelines shouting instructions at me. You couldn’t even play soccer. You could only see what I was doing wrong on the field…

Gu: This is a shock!

GE: For once in our lives, my team won but you ruined it all for me….That’s when I started to rob–the proof that I was no good. I’ve been like this since I was 7. I knew I was bad. I started to tell lies, the same lies I’ve been telling my whole life. It doesn’t matter because I’m no good. (Guiseppe moves towards son.) Keep away from me.

Gerry lets go with a series of brutally contemptuous insults, then begins slapping himself, and screaming at his father to strike him, saying “I’m no good! Hit me! I’m no good!”

At their trial, both Conlons are found guilty and given long sentences. At first, as they spend many hours in a cell together, Gerry ridicules Guiseppe’s deep religious faith and his seeming passivity. He uses a gang of angry, rebellious prisoners he takes drugs with against Guiseppe, saying to him: “At least they fight back, more than you ever did in your life.” Meanwhile it is Guiseppe who initiates a campaign to publicize their unjust conviction that Gerry scoffs at as a waste of time.

As the film continues, we see the cover up by the government after the real bombers of the pub are found. But Guiseppe refuses to become cynical, and this affects Gerry very much. He also sees that the other prisoners have come to have a real care for his father. Gerry tells his lawyer, played by Emma Thompson, that “Guiseppe always recognized the good in people.”

But it is only after the warden is viciously attacked by the gang Gerry had seen as his friends, that Gerry realizes how wrong he had been: he made into nothing what he should have valued so much: his father’s belief in justice and decency. Gerry stops using drugs, and joins in Guiseppe’s campaign to clear their names.

In the Lesson I quoted from earlier, Mr. Siegel also said to the young man:

“Have good will for your father [and you] will cleanse your life. You won’t be nervous, and you will have good will for other people. Good will is the doing all you can not to weaken a person and doing all that which would strengthen a person.”

Gerry begins to take better care of Guiseppe. With humor and patience he helps his father, now gravely ill, take medicine for his breathing. In one scene, trying to encourage Giuseppe not to lose heart, Gerry tells him about a memory he has–and this is so different from the scornful, disparaging way he talked earlier.

Ge: What I remember most about my childhood is holding my wee hand in your big hand. Even now, I can smell the tobacco in the palm of your hand.

Fighting back tears, his father says weakly: “Hold my hand.”

Guiseppe dies in prison. But while this is heartbreaking, we also feel that a victory has taken place because of the large change in how his son saw him. When the other prisoners learn of Guiseppe’s death, in honor of him, they take strips of paper, light them with matches, and drop them from their cell windows – and as these burning wads float down, they illuminate the black courtyard. There is a relation of dark and light, brilliance and fadingness that I believe is beautiful. And because of the persistence and conviction of his lawyer, Gerry gets a new trial and his and his father’s names are cleared.

IV. Got What I Most Wanted by Seeing What My Father Most Wanted From Me

Some years ago I was facing a situation that many people are facing now: the illness of an elderly parent. In such a situation, a person can have all kinds of emotions: pity, guilt, anger, fear, and a big tendency to see the world as cruel.

In 1992, when my father’s health was deteriorating, I am grateful that because of what I was learning, I was I able to be useful to him, even as I was very much affected, and could sometimes sink. In a class, when I spoke about having a drive to feel “This is all too much for me,” Ellen Reiss encouraged me to like thinking about my father. Among the questions she asked me were: “Do you want to have a certain steadiness and depth of thought about another person which has not been enough in your life?” And she said: “What your father is asking for from you is to go further than you have ever gone.”

“That’s what I want to do,” I said.

ER: The question is: Is that good for you? It’s terrible that it’s in this form, but you do have a chance to respect yourself.

This discussion made for an urgency in me to be deeper about my father. And he was grateful and said so.

I feel what I have learned through this will enable me to be useful to men all over America. Aesthetic Realism can teach us how to be proud of our thought about other people, beginning with a parent; this is the most emergent and most hopeful fact in the world!