The Other Side

CLIMBING the hill of the years, about the twentieth turn one begins to catch glimpses of the Other Side. Youth sees only this side, its side, the absolute side. Then winds a little level path along the cliffs from which Youth gets strange mist-magnified, haze-distorted views across the valley. ‘Do you know,’it whispers solemnly, ‘I fear I am a sad heretic!’ Or, ‘When I was a child I fancied this a happy world!’ Or, ‘I do not like to talk about myself; nobody understands me!’

And Middle Age laughs at the little egotist. It has walked that cliff path: it knows. Now Middle Age is roaming at will, crossing new-made bridges, trying shaky stepping-stones, pushing gayly off in skiff or air-ship, and taking unmitigated, unabashed delight in these excursions to the other side. The old syllogism has come true: this side is not that side, hence this side must be the other side.

Sallie and I were discussing an acquaintance, and I gave my opinion in emphatic terms not wholly complimentary. Sallie’s ‘nevertheless’ inaugurated a rose-colored list of our acquaintance’s virtues, each item strengthening by opposition my casual views. Next day I overheard Sallie using my argument to a caller and getting well-drubbed for it; while I, trying Sallie’s views on a fourth person, listened to my original opinion on our much-discussed friend. Now could anything have been more diverting? None of us cared; nobody was hurt. Our minds look contrary flexures as automatically as we ‘sit light’ when driving over a bump in the road, or lean in when the train curves out, or hurry our steps round the far side of Pisa’s lower.

Having an invalid in the family and being asked day after day how he was, I adopted one rule of reply. When the query was couched with smiles and cheerful tones I replied that my patient was not so well. When the interrogation came dolefully, my patient was rather better. He himself was at first shocked at such levity; but, testing it, found it, so provocative of amusement that I was condoned if not applauded.

A newspaper report of the serious illness of Judge Hoar caused a group of his friends to make inquiries of his brother. ‘Oh, yes,’ said the Senator genially, ‘my brother was ill. His family were away and I was away and there was nobody to differ from him. He was lonely as one katydid without another to cry katydid n’t. I returned to town, hurried to see him, contradicted everything he said, and we had several heated arguments. Now he is better, much better ; he will soon be himself again.’ And he was.

‘ I acted like a devil,’ Sallie exclaimed one day; and when I protested, — ’Yes I did; and I wanted to act like a devil, and don’t you with any perverted spirit of patience belittle my success in it.’ Parents should let their children be contrary at times; it eases the strain. One wise father, when his boys threatened to run away from home, always fell in with the project, adding a courteous invitation to come home to spend the first night. On the contrary, being contrary to others’ contrariness is merely to repeat on a superlative scale the original bone of contention. We ‘catch the sense at two removes.’

While we get frequent profit and amusement in differing from others, the situation is more piquant when we differ from ourselves. In the midst of writing an editorial on the ‘ Interrogative Bore’ I recall how hurt I was when one of my friends ceased to inquire about my affairs, ‘Never explain,’ I used to urge, till there stole over my memory the grace and balm of certain explanations made by loyal, velvet souls.

Descanting upon the sins of procrastination, I am haunted by a sense of the hours I have wasted by ‘raw haste, half-sister to delay’; the crossed letters my celerity has precipitated; the apples I have discarded because I plucked them green. So I write one side of the case blithely, and then refute it tellingly, as tellingly as did my absent-minded friend who responded to his own toast. Sometimes an editor accepts both my sallies ; sometimes he takes but one, — not necessarily the better one, but because he already has on hand a pat rejoinder written by another. Or sometimes it happens I had written the rejoinder myself. Those years I had gone on unconsciously collecting data on the other side, till the flood broke through like a reservoir in the hills, washing away all I had built up of old. Well, why not? We change our skins every seven years, why not our minds? To feel the same thing continuously is to feel nothing at all. We read a book we marked ten years ago and contradict each underscored assertion.

James says that the obstinate insistence that tweedledum is not tweedledee is the bone and marrow of life. A judge of one of our highest courts recently returned to private practice because he hated having to be impartial. He needed the enthusiasm of acting one-sidedly. For him progress lay not in a straight line equidistant from either bank but, as in tacking, in the over-accentuating of one principle at a time. One mother is a notable cook. Her daughter prefers that her children shall remember her by something else than the good things she puts into their mouths. The third generation elects domestic science. Romanticism was a protest against the barren formalism of a decadent classicism. When romanticism ran to seed, realism sprang up to choke it. Then the new symbolism ploughed up the dry facts of the last crop. Luxury needs the corrective of hard times, and from the resultant stern economy blooms the wherewithal to provide beauty and art and song.

By such corrective spice our knowledge gets digested into wisdom. The reverse side of the judge mentally exhausted through the strain of being impartial is the backslider from Christian Science who was tired of being so happy all the time. No single virtue is the key to the universe. The French shouting ‘Egalité’ were blind to the fact that the greatest inequality is achieved by the equal treatment of unequals. In winter I and numberless other students and tax-payers are practically debarred from the use of a splendid reading-room in a great public library because the atmosphere reeks with the odor of the soiled clothes of hundreds of loafers who occupy the chairs and doze over magazines which they cannot read but which they usurp and pollute. All the yarn Penelope spun in Ulysses’s absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths.

Many-sidedness, however, has its perils, too. It is possible to cultivate intellectual conditions that fairly paralyze the will. Premature multiplication of many points of view, cultivated emphasis of the many-sidedness of truth, readiness to defend any proposition, tends, as President King says, to over-sophistication. Lord Rosebery’s fatal gift of seeing both sides of a question produces an equilibrium of inactivity of enormous loss to British politics. As Sentimental Tommy sagely remarked, ‘It is easy enough to make up your mind if you have only one mind ’; but he had so many.

Still are not our many minds, is not our many-sidedness, the inevitable fruit of single-mindedness? They are woven together like the wrong side and the right side of a fabric, and in the best fabrics the wrong side is the right side, too. Let us decline to be frightened by this bugbear of the other side. Turn it over. Cross over. Know the other fellow. Try the other point of view. The judge asked Sam Weller if he spelled his name with a V or a W. ‘That depends upon the taste and fancy of the speller, my lord,’ replied Sam.