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ALL OUT!An Autobiography
By Albert Ellis Debbie Joffe Ellis
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2010 Estate of Albert Ellis
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChronology The Sidewalks of Pittsburgh and New York
The first sensible thing I can remember doing that helped me enjoy life and ward off potential misery happened when I started kindergarten at the age of four, in Pittsburgh. Did I really go to school that early in the city of my birth, when other cities like New York (as I discovered a little later) kept kids out of school until at least five, and sometimes six? To the best of my recollection, I did. Perhaps I was close to being five. Perhaps, since I was always big (at least tall) for my age, my mother simply lied about how old I was and pretended I was five. I really don't know. But I am pretty sure that I was still just a tot of four and not a very husky one at that. Who, me? Husky? Not even hardly ever. Simply, and no nonsense about it, never!
Anyway, one bright day my mother quietly told me that she was taking me to school, which, with no discussion, she promptly did. She walked me up a long hill to a large building about a block away from the small apartment house in which we lived, introduced me to the reasonably nice blond kindergarten teacher, and coolly left me in her tender clutches, saying that she would return at noon to take me home. The reasonably nice blond lady, in her turn, quickly introduced me to a motley group of youngsters, all of whom seemed to be (and probably were) a little older than I, irregularly sprawled around the large school room. They were acutely aloof, since they had already started their day's activities, and at first I was bewildered and didn't quite know what to do with myself. "A strange bunch!" I thought, seeing them so active, into themselves, and not at all inclined to stop their personal activities and welcome me.
The teacher, too. "Quite a character!" I said to myself. For, after greeting me for less than a minute, she also flew into her own thing-giving out crayons here, tidying up a child's chair-desk there, answering someone's questions, and bustling all over the room. I thought, "I'll ask her what to do," but I felt intimidated by her bustling and by everyone else's knowing what to do without being told. So I sat there for a while and watched the bustle, avidly wishing I were back home or back on the street outside my house where I knew the terrain, had a few cronies (including some grown-ups), and could quickly run into our ground-floor apartment if I got bored or frightened.
I was, let it be known, a pretty happy child without this goddamned new school routine. At home, I was the oldest of three, with a brother nineteen months younger and a sister just born. My mother was so impossibly busy taking care of those two that she let me run around and do practically anything I wanted. Did I feel neglected and unloved-jealous of the attention she had to give (and I mean had to give) to my two siblings? Like hell I did. I was always, possibly from the moment I scooted myself out of my mother's belly, an independent, my-kingdom-is-myself youngster. For the first few months of my entry into this world, my mother later told me, I was somewhat "difficult"-physically weak, colicky, and crying in pain much of the time. But once my colic, or whatever it was, passed, I started to enjoy being alive. I never seemed too needy of my mother, my father (a traveling salesman and promoter who was rarely around), nor anyone else. I was curious about everything-and I mean everything-and didn't give much of a hoot whether anything that happened was "good" or "bad." Whatever it was, I found it interesting-indeed, fascinating. "Nothing like learning!" I thought, so I learned and learned and learned.
Not from books or other reading material, for I don't remember anything like that, even when I started kindergarten. But I spoke to people of all ages. I listened to sounds-especially musical sounds. I began (again, according to my mother's account) to hum and sing tunes when I was less than two. I liked going shopping with my parents, especially in the big downtown stores. And whenever something new came my way, which seemed to happen continually, I thought about it, tried to understand it and figure it out, made some kind of sense of it, and widened my picture of the way the world really was and what I could expect of it. I thoroughly enjoyed figuring out things like that. I was, in my own way, quite a thinker. A philosopher and a theorizer? Well, yes-somewhat. In George Kelly's sense, that is, I was a little human scientist: one who observed how things were, made predictions as to how they would soon turn out, checked these predictions, revised them, and was amused and fascinated by the whole seeing-thinking-predicting process.
So, you see, I was getting along exceptionally well when-perhaps because she was so frightfully busy with my younger sister and brother or perhaps (more likely) because she wasn't ever a deeply nurturing parent-my mother packed me off to the outside world. I probably would have liked her to ask me if I wanted to go to kindergarten, thereby making the process somewhat more democratic. But my mother was not one to ask such questions! She was mean as well as being authoritarian in a highly Germanic way (her ethnic background was German-Jewish), she had enough conventionality, layered with her own inclination, not to let her kids interfere with her life too much, to solidly know that you didn't exactly consult your offspring about what they wanted to do. You mainly let them get along on their own, once they had the ability to fend for themselves, and you didn't give them too many superfluous rules. But when you thought it best for them to do something, such as start kindergarten at the age of four, you merely told them what they were to do and then you expected them to do exactly that. If they didn't, that wasn't the end of the world, and you didn't beat the shit out of them (at least, not too much). But you kept at them until they usually (not always!) did the "right" thing and fell into line.
So I didn't think of not staying in kindergarten once my mother put me there and the teacher introduced me and gave me my own chair to sit at. Or I thought of it only briefly. For I was at first so confused by the bustle of activity all around me, and the fact that in the midst of this bustle I was being completely ignored, that I did momentarily think of getting out of my seat, aiming myself at the door, walking down the long hallway to the entrance of the school, and wending my way downhill back to my own doorstep. Only for a moment, however. For I knew that some (though not exactly which) unpleasant consequence would occur if I bolted. I knew that neither my kindergarten teacher nor my mother (and father!) would take my bolting with wild enthusiasm, and that they would probably capture me and send me back to class, whether I liked it or not. And this kind of attention was not the kind I craved-unlike my younger brother, Paul, who, incredibly, seemed to like jumping up and down, shitting on the floor or pavement, yelling and screaming, and doing other "un-nice" things that got him huge amounts of attention and reprimands.
So I rethought bolting from kindergarten and did, as noted above, the first concrete, sensible thing I can remember doing to help myself enjoy life and to ward off potential misery. I sat watching the other children (and the flying-around-the-room teacher) and I said to myself, "Well, it really is a pain being cooped up in this class with nothing to do. And it is worse than having the full freedom of our apartment and doorstep. And it would be better if I were home and able to explore in my own fashion, talk to my friends, and run into my house to eat or play or do whatever I wanted to do. But, damn it, this isn't the worst thing that could happen to me. It's really not that bad. And, if I don't mess things up, it'll probably even get better. The teacher will soon give me something specific to do, and the other kids will stop their busyness and talk to me. So hold it! Don't do anything too rash. Wait a while to see how things turn out. You can always bolt later, if things get too rough. But why put your ass on the line when you don't have to yet? Wait a minute! Look around and see what's going on. Maybe you can learn something interesting. Watch it!"
Well, that was my first lesson-or the first one I can recall-in which I worked at acquiring higher frustration tolerance. I didn't like the situation I was in. I considered it unfair, since my mother had dragged me into it without giving me warning or asking my leave. I didn't know what was going to happen next, and I was a little afraid of the other kids, who knew each other well and who might easily gang up against me. I didn't quite trust the teacher, who seemed all right but was very busy doing her own thing and neglecting me. I could think of distinctly better, more interesting things to do. So I was clearly frustrated-not to mention scared.
At that time, moreover, I had not read much of Epictetus. In fact, I couldn't read at all. My mother's reading to me consisted of a stray fairy tale here and there. And, no, she wasn't very good at combing the fairy tale literature to see what little Albert might benefit by. More often she read me a cartoon or comic strip from that day's newspaper. So Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Spinoza, and Schopenhauer were not exactly my daily diet. Emerson and Thoreau were unheard of. Bertrand Russell, later quite an influence, was alive and writing, but his books on practical philosophy-especially his Conquest of Happiness-were years into the future. I was born on September 27, 1913. So when I was four, in 1917, Russell was already famous for his Principia Mathematica but not for his writings on the good life. As for the other notable mentor of my adolescence and early adulthood, John Dewey, if anyone had mentioned his name in 1917, I would have surely confused him with the more famous Admiral George Dewey, who destroyed the Spanish Armada at Manila Bay on May 1, 1898.
No, I can honestly say: At the age of four I received little help from the brilliant philosophers who were later to contribute to my potential sanity. But, ah! I didn't seem to need it. With my own bent for philosophizing surging firmly to the fore, I met the enemy (i.e., my own catastrophizing thoughts of being cooped up in kindergarten) and knocked him and her for a loop. I reasoned myself out of the near-panic state in which I had put myself, concluded that my whole world was really not about to cave in, and decided to stay in class and see what was going to happen.
What happened turned out to be almost all to the good. My classmates started to talk to me and involved me in some of their activities. After a while, my teacher gave me my own crayons and paints and showed me how to apply them to drawing paper. Snack time arrived and was something of a friendly ball. Finally, my mother came at noon to lead a happy little Albert back to the "safety" of his home. Within a few days, I found that home was relatively boring compared to the kindergarten activities, looked forward to leaving for school each morning, and learned to walk up the long hill and back home again on my very own, without my mother to chaperone me. In fact, I liked it better that way, since I could dawdle almost as much as I wanted and explore the block and the people in it as I wended my way to and from class.
Oh, I almost forgot: that was another hazard I managed to overcome. For the first day-or was it two?-my mother brought me to school and back. But then, typically, she decided that she could leave me on my own, since the school was only a long block from our apartment and I could presumably walk to and from it by myself. My mother often decided things like this, not because she thought that leaving children on their own helped them to become more independent. Mainly it was because she wanted the freedom to do what she wanted to do and not be encumbered by her dependent offspring. So she started me off at the age of four on my road to self-sufficiency and simply told me that thereafter I would have to take myself to school and back.
Because that's the way she was and that's the way I was used to, I argued only lightly with her mandate, mildly protesting that the one street I had to cross to get to school seemed rather dangerous. As I recall, it was one of Pittsburgh's busiest and widest streets, on which ran a great many cars and wagons, including a double-tracked trolley car. Negotiating to cross that street by myself was something I knew I could do (for I had sometimes crossed it on my own, in the course of playing outside my house), but I wasn't enthusiastic about doing it twice a day. The cars and trolleys-not to mention the big horse-drawn wagons-were detestably noisy, and if you were unlucky enough to run in front of one, well, that was the end. Of you, of everything. No kidding! I easily figured that out and thought of refusing to go to school by myself and insisting that my mother bring me there and call for me when school let out.
I thought of it-and decided that it wasn't very practical. For one thing, my mother did have two very young children, in addition to myself, and my father seemed to be around, to my recollection, about two days out of seven, and then mainly on weekends when school was out. So the chances of being taken to and from kindergarten by either of them were hardly magnificent.
I could solve the problem by asking almost any stranger to help me cross the street. I knew this would work, having tried it several times before and being rarely refused. Women, especially, seemed delighted to help a fairly cute four-year-old boy across the street, and men were no slouches either.
But, alas, I was a slouch at asking. Somehow or other, totally unlike my highly extroverted mother and father, I seemed to have been born shy. Once I got to know someone, we got along swimmingly. I knew how to use my big mouth. I even had "good" models. My father was a fantastic salesman who sold and resold the Brooklyn Bridge many times, and my mother was a compulsive talker who got thrown out of school in the sixth grade because-according to her teacher-her mouth incessantly went like a duck's ass. With people I knew, I talked well. But new people? Oh, no! I normally-or shall I say abnormally?-kept my mouth closed and waited for them to make the first overtures.
That didn't work too well when I wanted someone to help me cross the wide street outside my house. I could stand on the corner facing the traffic, and eventually some kind soul would ask me if I wanted to be helped across. I would then smile and gratefully say, "Yes, thank you," and go along with my escort. But eventually took a little too long for my impatient young soul. Damn that. I'd rather negotiate the noisy traffic on my own (and remember, this was before traffic lights were invented).
After some rational cognition on my part, I soon began doing just that. For I knew that the traffic was not always thick and fast. I could see that at times there were long, one- or two-minute gaps between cars and carriages, and I knew (from experience) that it only took me five seconds to scoot safely across the street when one of these traffic lapses occurred. So I sanely, and quite ably, started saying to myself, "Hmph! It's really not that dangerous. Noisy, yes. Dangerous looking, yes. But if I just wait a minute or two, a gap in the traffic will occur and I can get across easily, safely. If I only wait. And waiting won't kill me. Traffic will, but waiting won't. So I'll be stuck for a while. So it's annoying to be stuck. So I don't like it. So what? I'd better wait and then run like the devil before the cars get me!"
Well, that sensible self-talk worked. I calmed myself down, went to and from school by myself every weekday, and negotiated the busily trafficked street with few qualms. At first I was afraid. Then I talked myself into being less afraid. Then I practiced acting against my fear and got myself used to this "fearful" situation. Then I lost my fear entirely. Then I actually began to enjoy the previously "frightening" situation. There I was, only four, and I figured out a model for overcoming "fearsome" situations about which I plagued myself.
Excerpted from ALL OUT! by Albert Ellis Debbie Joffe Ellis Copyright © 2010 by Estate of Albert Ellis. Excerpted by permission.
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