Paledium Times Online

Using a Mother's Death to See Meaning in the World

By Ruth Oron and Ann Richards

This February a Christian woman in Oswego, New York, and a Jewish woman in Ramat Hashofet, a kibbutz in Israel, died. They were both 91 years of age. Lola McGough and Leah Shazar were our dear mothers.


Our purpose in this article is to show the tremendous value and newness of the education Aesthetic Realism, founded by Eli Siegel, on the subject of death. The loss of a parent is one of the biggest things in life, something people feel unprepared for and often feel the sense of grief will never leave them. Death is often used to be angry with and bitter about the world, even God.

We are so grateful that because of what we are learning we have been spared so much anguish. We are seeing that even now it is possible to have new feeling about our mothers. Aesthetic Realism has taught us that our purpose with a person who is alive and a person who is no longer alive is exactly the same: to like and see meaning in the world.

People often get very depressed, do not want to talk about the person, can hate seeing other people happy, and can even feel that the sun shining is a mockery of the great sadness they feel inside. And they come to the conclusion that it is a mistake to care for people too much because when they die we will suffer. Death is often used, unknowingly, to despise the world and have contempt for it. Contempt, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the making less of what is different from us to build ourselves up falsely. "The purpose of Aesthetic Realism," Mr. Siegel writes, "is to understand this temptation and to fight it as courageously as possible."

In a lecture Mr. Siegel gave in 1949, he said this about a representative woman:

A tragedy occurs and the self is shocked. For a while nothing has meaning. If there is largeness of mind in the woman to whom the tragedy occurs, she won't resent other people, and at this moment, though she will be sad, she will feel that grief can happen to others, in fact, has happened to others and she will feel a sense of kinship between herself and all other people. She will still be sad, but it won't be that angry, empty sadness. There will be some sort of meaning to it.

It means our lives to us that in class discussions at the time of our mothers' deaths, Ellen Reiss, the Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism, encouraged us to have this largeness of mind.

I, Ruth Oron, was troubled by how my grief seemed to color everything, and Miss Reiss kindly asked me, "Do you think you feel as you do because you lost the person who loved you the most or because you don't love things and people enough?" I saw that I was weakening myself by using the death of my mother to feel uncared for, and to care less for things and people--and this is certainly not what she would have wanted! I saw in a new way how much people meant to her as I read the autograph books in which her friends wrote when she left Hungary for a new life in Palestine. She must have cared for these books dearly, because though they were given to her when she was 22 years old, she wanted them close to her in the last days of her life.

And when I, Ann Richards, said that I was finding it hard to believe that my mother Lola McGough who had been so close to me had gone away forever, Ms. Reiss asked: "Do you think that if a person has been in the world they can ever be entirely not in the world?" This beautiful question gave me hope and I began to think about how people in Oswego, at her church, the library, the hospital, the heritage society, and elsewhere, have been affected by her. And I am learning new things about her. Her effect on the world is real. Her meaning continues through all the people she has affected and affects still, through objects she cared for, her love of education, and I want her to continue through having her as alive as possible in my thoughts, and by using her to be a better human being.

Questions like these are opening our minds to ask and see more about our mothers, "Who was she?" "How can I use her to be fair to all people near and far?"

In these poetic lines about death Mr. Siegel shows the endless meaning of any person's existence:

Since the allness of things always is, what is in us friendly to the 
     allness of things, doesn't go; it always was; it doesn't go,
     for it can't.
Where we are the allness of things, we remain.

This is beautiful and we hope people will get comfort and strength from it, as we do. What Lola and Leah still want from us is to have their meaning add to our lives, making us happier every day.