Hear Little Man
Being a person of small stature gives me a perspective that differs from the conventional view of things from time to time. There might be some assets too, but I can’t think of any. It has occasionally brought me some disagreeable experiences, like needing to ask a taller person to retrieve a beer mug from the top shelf, especially if that person is of the female persuasion. More significant have been disagreeable events like I often had at conventions when I was a professor. During breaks in the meetings I would sometimes be talking with a colleague when someone else would walk up and begin talking over my head to my interlocutor as if I weren’t there. I found this annoying, frustrating and humiliating and for many years did not know what to do other than rage inwardly and wait impatiently for the interloper to finish his business, or slink sheepishly away. I don’t recall ever receiving any help from the person with whom I had been talking. He might have assumed that, if I did not take any corrective action, it must have been O K with me.
The truth is: I didn’t know what to do. Sometimes I could pick up where we had left off; otherwise I would look at my watch, make some excuse about having to be somewhere else, and shuffle miserably away. This began to change after my personal reorganization in my psychotherapy self-training group. It was to become the more assertive person I had fervently denied until the members of the training group would no longer tolerate the denial that they could see and I couldn’t. It was the last and most important phase in my personal therapy, even though that was not the intended purpose of the “family” training group. (I described this transformation in my memoir: All My Life I’ve been Somebody Else.)
The way it showed up in the experience at conventions was that when the interloper would appear and begin to do his thing I would say, “Were you born so rude, or did you have to learn it?” I had to speak this so loudly that it would penetrate his otherwise oblivion to my existence. The interloper would then look down and notice there was another person in the triangle, often apologize, and then he was the one to slink off. I found it quite satisfying. My original partner in the conversation would often grin and chuckle. At other times—when I felt he/she could have given me some support with a discussion as important to him as to me—I would simply turn and walk away. Often he would abandon the interloper and run to catch up with me. I found that alternative quite agreeable too.
All the above is simply preamble to the subject I really mean to discuss. It was the background in my personal development that fired my interest in the lives of “ordinary,” or “common” people—the ones whom Wilhelm Reich was addressing in his book, Listen Little Man. Reich, unlike Freud—who believed only wealthy people could afford psychoanalysis—opened his clinic in a working class area of town and engaged in the treatment of ordinary, or common, people. In the course of that work he believed he discovered some things about ordinary people that accounted for why they were ordinary: they perpetuated their condition themselves. Among “little people” there are invariably many who are as smart, as gifted, as advantaged (to begin with) as those who rage out of mediocrity to become part of the ruling class. What distinguishes them is singleness of mind to become “somebody.”
I have wondered why a population of a country would send their young people off to fight a war in which they had no stake—as has happened over and over in history. Reich provides a plausible explanation: they didn’t know, or hadn’t recognized, that the people who told them what to do were no more qualified than they, themselves, to decide how to live their lives.
Now and then some writer or pundit points this fact out at least indirectly. I remember an incident in an early scene in the first Star Wars movie. It is the only one that has stuck in my mind ever since I first saw it: Obi-wan Kenobi is leading his apprentice, Luke Skywalker, into an area controlled by the empire. I can’t remember why they were going there, but that does not matter to this point. Luke raises the objection that they don’t have the proper I D, so how will they persuade the border guards to let them in. Obi-wan replies that they will tell the guards what they, the guards, think they should do. You have to tell people like this what they think, he explains.
Another glimpse of the kind of phenomenon Reich was aiming at in his book is in A Nation of Sheep, published in 1961 by William J. Lederer—co-author of The Ugly American. He summarizes his analysis with these statements: “the Preface of this book pointed out that in response to The Ugly American we received over 8,000 querying letters… from every corner of our country [that asked] ‘What can the average American do about the frightful posture of the United States in foreign affairs?... All of us instinctively sense that foolish errors are the cause of our failures. However, few people angrily demand that action be taken to correct matters… Instead they wring their hands pitiably and bleat, ‘what can I do?’”
I must confess that I am myself an example of this, not just in regard to foreign affairs—that does require intense knowledge of what is happening world-wide, and why, but in regard to the kinds of facts that almost everyone knows, like the ever increasing evidence of global warming and its dire consequences, world hunger while tons of food go into garbage dumps in our country every day, other bad effects of world over population, and so on.
I feel guilty every time I go somewhere in my car, because I know I am contributing to air pollution and global warming. But if I gave up going to all the places I need to drive to, it would be a huge change to my lifestyle. I could no longer visit relatives, including our own sons and their families, or go to other favorite activities like writing workshops or my old guys Thursday night “Beer Night” group. Yes, I could get public transportation to some of these venues, but it would take enormous amounts of time waiting at pick up locations, and to many I could not even get public transportation. In theory I could have done what a few friends have done—pioneering a self -sufficient farm in an out of the way corner of Kentucky or southern Indiana to escape the feeling of always having to depend on someone else for assistance or to tell me the rules about how to act. It abandons all hope of having any influence on the direction of our nation’s affairs by speaking up on the little I can allow myself to have an opinion on.
So, indeed, what is to do, beyond continuing in this funk? I need to give myself a new insight like I recounted at the beginning of this story.