I lived for a time in an area of Provo, Utah on the freeway side of State Street that when people asked, I affectionately called West Egg.’ It was just sort of a running joke to see who would get the reference, but I guess calling it West Egg made all of us that lived there Jay Gatsbys and Nick Carraways in the back of my mind. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much we really were.
For those of you who were still phoning it in by the time you got to 10th grade English I’ll remind you that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the story of the decadent life of the rich in New York in 1922. Primarily it tells of an exceedingly wealthy man called Gatsby who has lived his entire adult life in pursuit of the love of a woman he doesn’t have, but hopes with all his heart will someday be his.
I say again, we in Provo’s little version of West Egg were all Jay Gatsbys. I lived in a ward full of people that yearned with all of their hearts for the love of a significant somebody and created whole lives around that yearning. The major difference between Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Provo’s Gatsbys? Nick Carraway, the point of view character in the book says of Jay Gatsby, “[he had] an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person” (2).
Instead of romantic readiness’, there is a helplessness and a hopelessness that prevails among the twenty somethings and thirty somethings in the Church that have been continually disappointed in love. The people that sit in the lives they’ve built or even postpone building lives for themselves because they hear the call to find an eternal companion and feel powerless to heed it.
Why is it that we can be showered with validating success and experience, but it’s that single drop of heartbreak or rejection that brands us and runs the risk of defining our entire social worldview? We ignore the love of friends and family and Heaven; if that one boy/girl tells me he/she can’t love me, I must be entirely unlovable. It doesn’t matter if you’re someone who has never had a serious relationship or still trying to get over a love of six years that came to a jarring end, disappointed expectation leaves a seemingly permanent mark.
Jay Gatsby with his boozing and his bootlegging may not be the picture of something to aspire to, but I stand in awe of his optimism and wonder how, in the midst of all the corruption (all the evidence that proved he was wrong to keep believing), he managed to protect “his incorruptible dream” (154). It is not from a place of jazz age depression that I write these thoughts. On the contrary, I feel such glittering excitement about my potential both in love and living that I feel a keen interest in protecting the peace and eager anticipation that I feel right now. I don’t want my current fire to be snuffed by the very next person that walks away, I want to cultivate a hope that is real, I want to build my own incorruptible dream.’
So, for those of you that are familiar with the story, there is an elephant in the room with this interpretation of the text. It’s wearing a cloche hat and a flapper dress, but it is an elephant nonetheless. Jay Gatsby’s story (spoiler alert) doesn’t end happily. His hopes are dashed in a way that renders his years of hoping not only tragic, but arguably foolish.
No one wants to be made the fool. I think that is a motivation that is quietly whirring underneath every gaggle of girls that sits around saying how dumb boys are and every boy that says he can’t find a girl that has any substance. I’m sorry, but I’ve witnessed the existence of both really exemplary boys and declaredly worthwhile girls. Making blanket statements like that is a way to be able to step back and say told you so’ the next time you are rejected, rather than being the fool that allowed yourself to see possibility and was empirically wrong. Then you can at least dust off your pride (still intact) and claim you are too smart for life to take you by surprise (meanwhile you lick your wounds and pretend it isn’t stinging).
Perhaps that is the central conceit of refusing to hope; wanting desperately not to be wrong and knowing that it would be easier to be pleasantly surprised by something unexpected and wonderful happening than to live with a double dose of disappointment from both losing what you thought was yours and being wrong to have had the thought.
The problem is that the more you refuse to wish for the ideal outcome, the more you insulate the mechanisms inside of you that feel that pleasant surprise from those unexpected joys. If cynicism is what you encourage than your ability to see goodness (even outside of your own experience) is diminished in accelerating degrees. My response to Gatsby’s unhappy end is that he lived a better life for having hoped. He reminds me of those mentioned in Hebrews 11 that “died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them” (v. 13).
Letting optimism color the way you look at every person (particularly at the people that have the elusive potential for being yours forever) will transform you. It will give you a smile with “eternal reassurance” in it. I want to be the kind of person who looks at people (including myself) with one of those Jay Gatsby looks, “It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey” (48).
Cultivating your own incorruptible dream will improve yourself and help the people around you to be a little more like the glowing parts you see in them. It will not spare you from all heartache, but it will prevent you from being someone who merely retreats from possibility into “vast carelessness.”
“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 one fine morning—-“(180). To move forward boldly and make choices as though everything you hope for is not only possible, but probable may not mean that you get exactly what you wished for or saw for yourself, but you will run faster and stretch farther and in stretching farther you will find things within your reach that would not have been there without that hope to drive you.
And we have one additional advantage in the construction of our dreams and in clinging to our hopes.
We have the promises of a God. We make covenants and receive priesthood blessings and the things He has said will be ours, though they may not come in our expected timeframe, will come. God cannot lie and so our job is to believe in the life He sees for us and strive to live worthy of it. In building a dream for the future we stumble upon little snatches of our personal heaven, echoes of a something familiar yet far off. Rather than “[taking] revenge on [them] by calling [them] names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence” (The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis), embrace life’s little reminders of the best that’s in us and where it can take us and write your life’s story so they’ll be a part of it.