Lately I've been reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's lesser known novel, This Side of Paradise. It's one of those freebies you can now download, given its removal from copyright after fifty years.
This novel focuses on the character Amory Blaine. There's not much to like about Amory, particularly his conceit. He interests me because he resembles many of us. He likes control. He has a zeal to be noticed. He's self conscious in everything he does. He must be perfect. He must be liked. In his self-absorption, he's quick to take offense.
In the course of things, he meets his third cousin, Clara Page, with whom he falls in love. Widowed and impoverished, she nonetheless has a compelling resilience about her and an insightful way of getting to the core of things. As her first name suggests, she functions as a clarifier in her intuitive keenness. She sees, for example, the source of Amory's vanity and sensitivity to criticism.
Clara is direct in her dissection of Amory's egotism as a mask for deeply seated feelings of personal inadequacy:
"You sink to the third hell of depression when you think you've been slighted. In fact, you haven't much self-respect."
Here, as elsewhere in this novel, Fitzgerald proves a keen observer of the psychological motives behind outward behavior.
When we wound easily or strive overly it often stems from a sense we don't measure up. Perfectionists, we yearn for approval as evidence of our self-worth. Over achievers, we require validation.
Clara again hits the nail on the head, exclaiming, "The reason you have so little self-confidence, even though you gravely announce to the occasional philistine that you're a genius, is that you've attributed all sorts of faults to yourself and are trying to live up to them."
Amory suffers from a common anxiety malaise that can shackle our potential for finding happiness. It becomes difficult to elude its hydra tentacles, as it requires an honest and painful, acknowledgment of our weaknesses. But it's the only way out. Until we can live with ourselves, warts and all, we can't really find contentment.
This doesn't mean getting into self-flagellation. It isn't wallowing we're after. It's self-acceptance. Only then can true healing begin. We become lovable when we learn to love ourselves. Forgiving ourselves, we can forgive others.
Mitch Albom got it right in his The Five People You Meet in Heaven: "'You have peace, the old woman said, 'when you make peace with yourself.'"