WACO, Texas, May 14, 2013 ― We can learn some important lessons about our future goals from the story of Jay Gatsby.
Though I was not disappointed by the new adaptation of The Great Gatsby, neither was I enthralled. Instead, the movie seemed to begin with a forced storytelling of rough scene cuts that eventually found itself understanding the deeper meaning.
By many accounts, the movie does a good job at accurately portraying the story and meaning of the book (with a few minor faults). Jay Gatsby is continually striving to be close to Daisy, his past love, and his desire is symbolized by the flashing green light at the end of her dock. He spends many nights staring across the lake at that flashing light, the object that reflects his true “American dream.”
Instead, as the plot resolves, we begin to realize the futility of achieving a goal that always seems to be just out of reach. As many older, wiser people will remind us, striving for success, money, or fame does not bring happiness. Yet, we are still captivated by the allure of these objects, the expected solutions to our emptiness.
So what then should we strive for to make ourselves happy? According to an article in The Freeman magazine, a major key to happiness is called “flow.” Quoting Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a renowned psychology professor and author, “A good life consists of more than simply the totality of enjoyable experiences. It must also have a meaningful pattern, a trajectory of growth that results in the development of increasing emotional, cognitive, and social complexity.”
Rather than chasing “external rewards,” the article argues, we should first understand ourselves. Perhaps this is something Gatsby could have learned. While chasing Daisy, Gatsby’s identity becomes irrelevant. His past accomplishments and memories turn out to be illusions, attempts to redefine himself as a different person. In a way, he tries to ignore his true past in order to reach his future goal.
On the other side of the spectrum, we should not seek to ignore our future either. If we dread what is to come, we despise the inevitable ― that we are always flowing toward something new. We should attempt to learn from our past mistakes, not run away from them, and apply that knowledge to our future.
That’s not easy. Life is hard, painful, messy, and unexpected. Just when we think everything is going our way, something slips away. A friend passes away, a relationship comes crashing down, or we lose our job, fail a test, or don’t get into the school we wanted. We keep trying to escape these events of our past and look toward the future promise instead.
There is truly no better way to frame the struggle without referring to the final quote of the book. In the new movie, it is displayed on the screen in a cloud of fog, reaching one last dramatic climax before the conclusion. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter —tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And then one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
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