Considering Poor People

Never before in his life had Amory considered poor people. He thought cynically how completely he was lacking in all human sympathy. O. Henry had found in these people romance, pathos, love, hate—Amory saw only coarseness, physical filth, and stupidity. He made no self-accusations: never any more did he reproach himself for feelings that were natural and sincere. He accepted all his reactions as a part of him, unchangeable, unmoral. This problem of poverty transformed, magnified, attached to some grander, more dignified attitude might some day even be his own problem; at present it roused only his profound distaste.

This Side of Paradise p. 182

Amory is his own god. His feelings are the real him—he thinks—however silly and foolish that is. Only God is who he is. As fallen humanity, we cannot trust wholly to feelings; they are unreliable compasses on our journey because they are subject to our ignorance: Amory saw poor people; O. Henry found something in them, i.e., he took the time to know them and overcome any prejudices or misunderstandings—or have his prejudices confirmed. 

Amory refused to know; thus he only had feelings to go by—feelings that were short-sighted, misinformed, evil. His feelings are in no way unmoral, for feelings lead to actions. Here they arouse distaste—a sure sin since we are called to love our fellow man. 

And we live today in a world where feelings reign. I feel; therefore, that must be right. Feelings may be natural, but they are by no means necessarily sincere. If there is no foundation on which to judge feelings, then we live in a world of great contradiction, and might will make right. And suffering will be all our lot. 

Dirtier than a Battlefield

[The subway] was dirtier than any battlefield he had seen, harder to contemplate than any actual hardship moulded of mire and sweat and danger, it was an atmosphere wherein birth and marriage and death were loathsome, secret things. 

He remembered one day on the subway when a delivery boy had brought in a great funeral wreath of fresh flowers, how the smell of it had suddenly cleared the air and given every one in the car a momentary glow.

This Side of Paradise p. 181

He saw death in the life of the subway car. He felt life from the recognition of death by those flowers. We cannot escape the juxtaposition. A man grieves on the same day another woman rejoices on the same day another child sees drudgery in his school work. Life does not stop because one died; death pays no mind to whether we want to celebrate life. Death is as Sarah Groves says, “so inconvenient.”

And because death is not our friend, doesn’t consider our wishes, cares not for our plans, should we not have compassion on the hard to contemplate instead of muddling over why the mass of humanity with their births, marriages, and deaths are so hard to contemplate? 

If we seek to insulate ourselves from real life, we will, like Amory, be offended by what we consider profane, but if we will live life with people, we might just find a holiness in the births, marriages, and deaths. 

Sacrifice

The first fact that flashed radiantly on his comprehension was the great impersonality of sacrifice—he perceived that what we call love and hate, reward and punishment, had no more to do with it than the date of the month. He quickly recapitulated the story of a sacrifice he had heard of in college: a man had cheated on an examination; his roommate in a gust of sentiment had taken the entire blame—due to the shame of it the innocent one’s entire future seemed shrouded in regret and failure, capped by the ingratitude of the real culprit. He had finally taken his own life—years afterward the facts had come out. At the time the story had both puzzled and worried Amory. Now he realized the truth; that sacrifice was no purchase of freedom. It was like a great elective office, it was like an inheritance of power—to certain people at certain times an essential luxury, carrying with it not a guarantee but a responsibility, not a security but an infinite risk. It’s very momentum might drag him down to ruin—the passing of the emotional wave that made it possible might leave the one who made it high and dry forever on an island of despair.

This Side of Paradise p. 175

Sacrifice done out of love in response to the great sacrifice of Christ does not end in despair, for it does not mind the response of the one sacrificed for; it thinks only of the one who sacrificed himself for us all. And thus there is no risk. 

Sentimental vs. Romantic

“Conscience—kill it like me! Eleanor Savage, materiologist … .”

“But I have to have a soul,” [Amory] objected. “I can’t be rational—and I won’t be molecular.”

… “I thought so, … , I feared so—you’re sentimental. You’re not like me. I’m a romantic little materialist.”

“I’m not sentimental—I’m as romantic as you are. The idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last—the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.”

This Side of Paradise p. 162

Amory here is exposing his own contradiction: he has to have a soul (that presumably goes on), and yet, as a romantic, he longs for the end of things, a desperate ache to be always throwing a pity party—maybe with Mrs. Haversham’s cake providing the nourishment. His ever evolving world view leads him ever closer to nihilism. And thus he has nothing to offer Eleanor or himself or anyone else. 

Enlarged or Shriveled

You make a great mistake if you think you can be romantic without religion. Sometimes I think that with both of us the secret of success, when we find it, is the mystical element in us: something flows into us that enlarges our personalities, and when it ebbs out our personalities shrink; I should call your last two letters rather shrivelled. Beware of losing yourself in the personality of another being, man or woman.

This Side of Paradise p. 156

The mythical element is not the way we often think about myth—an old, yet untrue story. No, myth here is the overarching story. God dwelling in us through his Spirit does, necessarily, enlarge our personalities. We are never more fully us than when we surrender our will to him, humbly repenting of—us. But absent God, we are shriveled, and when we lose ourself in the worship of another, we dry up altogether. God has it all, and in him we become the fairest bride, or we can lose ourselves in a cheap imitation of fair, and we gain nothing.