“He could not speak for Mama without commanding how he himself was to be looked upon.” -Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March
It’s surprising, and hard to remember, and wonderful that most of what happens–almost everything that happens, really–is not about me. It’s so easy to forget that. When I’m with my students, it’s easy to see what they learn and believe as a reflection of my (in)abilities as a teacher. When I’m with my little brother, it’s easy to see his actions as a commentary on the kind of big brother I am. In my little brat’s mind, it’s easy to think that I’m the only one in the whole wide world, and everything that’s happening is happening to me.
In The Adventures, Simon puts his aging, almost-blind mother in a retirement home. Bored, she asks for a job, and starts putting together political pins for an upcoming election. When Simon sees her working with her hands, he explodes. He grew up poor, but he married rich and has made it rich, and he wants everyone to know that his mother doesn’t need to work with her hands. It doesn’t matter that she wants to. It matters that he’s important, and if they don’t treat her this certain way, they’re not recognizing his importance.
We hurt the ones we love, when we look at them the way Simon looks at his mother. We turn what could have been our support into a kind of entrapment. We turn our love into our self-regard. We can even lie to ourselves, tell ourselves it’s for their good–because they need to learn. Because we can decide better. I know a father who chose his son’s college, not by where the boy could learn, but by where the father could brag about.
We hurt ourselves, too. Simon loses his mother. He steals her from himself. Throughout the book, he steals away everyone he loves: his brother, his wife, his mistress. He makes them all into reflections of how he should be viewed (as the man who provides; as the man who made it rich; as the man who came from nothing; as the man who can have anyone and anything) and lives alone in the middle of all of them.
I don’t want to do that. I want to have my brother, and my students, and my friends. I want them to be different. I want to live in a world of not-mes. In whatever ways I can, I want to protect that world for you.