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borne back into the past: lessons from the great gatsby



[Warning: There may be some Gatsby spoilers in this article. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie and don't want to know details about the plot, come back to this article later.] 


With the new movie debuting this weekend, I've re-discovered my love of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. It's such a powerful tale about how much dwelling on the past can impact not only your life but the lives of others as well. I loved the story the first time I read it in high school, but re-reading it now (at nearly 30-years-old—almost exactly the age Nick Carraway was when he spent a summer with Gatsby), the book has taken on an entirely new meaning for me.

One of the reasons I started Positively Present is because I was struggling to overcome the past. I was both tormented by it and yet oddly desperate to relive certain moments again and again. Sometimes I'd literally try to get back to the past by returning to the same locations, people, and activities. Logically, I knew the past was gone, but I couldn't stop myself from trying to relive it at times. And much more often than I liked, I found myself ruminating about what could have been had things gone differently.   

Had I possessed the charm and resourcefulness of Gatsby, perhaps I too would have gone to drastic measures to recapture what I had believed to be lost. (For those who need a refresher on the story: Gatsby has created an entire lifestyle of lavish parties and wealth in the hopes that former love, Daisy, will return once again to his life.) Maybe I too would have done whatever I could have to reclaim what had once been mine. But, not being the great (and fictional) character Gatsby, I was forced to move forward—to at least try to keeping paddling into the future even as I felt myself repeatedly being pulled back into the past. 

Right before I started Positively Present, I made the choice to focus my attention on the present. I understood it would never be easy to let the past go, but dwelling on it had clearly gotten me nowhere. I'd been borne back again and again into the past and, despite the ever-pounding waves and the relentless current, I made the choice to fight back, to choose now over then.  

It was one of the best choices I've ever made. 

Difficult as it was—and, quite honestly, still is—choosing to focus on the present transformed my life. Rather than dwelling on what I did or did not do, I was finally living. I still think about the past (who doesn't?), but I no longer dwell on it with a Gatsby-like determination to return there, either to undo or redo what had already been done. Though I still struggle to come to terms with what was, I now know that living a life focused on the past isn't really living at all. And as I re-read The Great Gatsby recently I realized that the character of Jay Gatsby is living-in-the-past personified. He spent is present creating a future based entirely on his desire to go back to the past. 

Gatsby's intense focus on the past doesn't work out so well for him in the end (poor guy), but his tale provides some valuable insights into just why dwelling on the past can wreck havoc on the present... 



“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of [Gatsby's] dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”


When we long for the past, recapping it again and again in our minds, we fail to realize that what happened in the past is not always the same as what we remember happened in the past. Odd as it might seem, what we remember isn't always what actually happened—and sometimes we remember things with a more positive, or at least more interesting, spin. 

No matter how much Gatsby loved Daisy or how great things were when they were together, it probably wasn't nearly as wonderful as the illusion he'd spent years creating in his mind. Like Gatsby, many of us store up memories, recalling times when everything was seemingly perfect. Some of us, like the ill-fated Gatsby, waste the present trying to return, in some way, back to that "perfect" time in the past. Many of us have newer, fresher experiences that dim the past and pave the way for living in the present—but sometimes memories of an imagined, better time shine so bright that they blind us to what is real. 

When it comes to recollections of Daisy—and the great love Gatsby strives desperately to relive with her—Gatsby is probably experiencing something called a flashbulb memory, or a highly detailed memory of a particularly emotional moment. As vivid as these memories are, they are often far from accurate. As Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias, wrote about flashbulb memories: "flashbulb memories are not so much Polaroid photos as snapshots brushed up in Photoshop again and again. The retouched photo might resemble the original image, but it is no longer an exact representation of what was initially captured."  

Most of us probably have flashbulb memories from traumatic events—like 9/11 or an expected loss—but what about the ones that cause us to recall the past in such rosy-hued detail that we long to return to the past? Hard as it can be to admit—our minds don't tell us the truth?!—it's true: our memories are not always (or often) accurate. The way we think certain time or person or situation isn't always the way it actually was. And, as a result, attempting to return to that place in the past will rarely, if ever, result in that "perfection" we had imagined. As Gatsby learned the hard way, dwelling on a negative past event will certainly not help to create a more positive present. 



“'Can’t repeat the past?' [Gatsby] cried incredulously. 'Why of course you can!'” 


While we I know, logically, that we can't go back to the past, we're often nagged by the idea that we can somehow re-create it in the future. Gatsby believed he could re-create past experiences he'd had with Daisy by creating a future so fabulous she couldn't resist leaving her life to spend the rest of her days with him. In some ways, he got a brief glimpse of the past in the present moments he shared with Daisy, but what he shared with her in the pages of the book would never be the same as what they'd shared in the past. Too much time had passed, too much had changed. 

Dwelling on the past—either the good or the bad—can cause us to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. If, like Gatsby, we relentlessly desire to reconnect with what was, we risk missing out on the now. Though the past itself cannot be repeated, elements of the past can. And if we are constantly in search of moments that have already come and gone, we're missing out on the moments happening right now. 

Gatsby so desperately wanted to go back to a different time and place that he focused all his attention on trying to create a life that would bring him back there. But that burning desire for what was kept Gatsby stuck in the same figurative place, focusing on the same goal with such intensity that he missed out on living his own life. Now, that's not to say that having an intense focus on a goal is a bad thing—it can be wonderfully motivating and useful in some cases—but to have a goal that revolves around recreating the past, well, that can be trouble.

It could be argued that Gatsby didn't keep repeating the same mistakes—he created a fabulous life for himself, very different from the average existence he'd had when he first met Daisy—but I'd challenge that. To me, Gatsby's actions were a direct result of wanting to go back to the past, to recreate it in the future. And, while it's not entirely clear what Gatsby did to get all of that wealth, I'm pretty sure not all of it was positive. To get back to the past, Gatsby had to get his hands dirty. Going backward can be a dirty business—one that rarely leads to a positive future, a lesson Gatsby learned the hard way. 



“[Gatsby] talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was.”


In a recent interview with E! News, Leonardo DiCaprio, portrayer of Gatsby in this year's film, said, "I've always felt like Jay Gatsby was detached from it all. He creates this illusion of this castle and parties and all this great wealth, but he's not enjoying himself. He's not really present in that time period. He's consumed by something else." What Gatsby is consumed by is the past. He is not in the moment. He is only thinking about how he can get back to that place of happiness, that time when he was with Daisy. Of course, it's about so much more than Daisy—it's the person he was when he was with her, the way she or that time made him feel.

Gatsby, despite is clear mission to recreate that lovely time with Daisy, does seem like a lost soul. As much wealth and prosperity as he seems to have, he isn't happy. He's spent a great deal of time trying to create a world that Daisy will love in hopes that she will love him again, and in that singular mission to return to what was, he lost himself. Focusing too much on the past can do that to a person. It causes you to miss out on the now—on your own life!—when you dwell on what was. Gatsby's obsession with the past muddled up his present (and cut his future much too short). 

As narrator Nick Carraway muses in the book, "[Gatsby] must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream." Gatsby focused so intently on getting back to the past that, when it didn't work out as he'd planned in the present, he was even more lost than he'd been all that time he'd been working to recreating his past. And that's not surprising, based on what we know about memory and recollections of the past. 

Even if Gatsby had been able to recover the past—to reclaim Daisy, to recover a lost part of himself—it wouldn't have been the same. Time changes things, and the past is not easily revisited. Spending time dwelling on the past won't bring it back, and rumination will only create a sense of loss over and over again. If we spend too much time dwelling on what was, like Gatsby, we will repeatedly feel loss—and lost. It's tough to orient yourself in the present when you're stuck in the past, and you can't paddle yourself into the future when your boat's facing the wrong direction. 



Much as I write about the necessity of staying present in order to create a positive life, I know how difficult it can be to come to terms with the past. It becomes a part of you, as easy to take for granted as your limbs—and just as difficult to imagine life without. Your past shapes you—but it doesn't have to define you. For Gatsby, everything in his present was a direct reflection of his desire for the past. He wanted not to go back to what was, but to recreate the past again in the future—a feat that no man, no matter how rich or charming or clever, can do. 

To a lesser extent than Gatsby, many of us also long to return to some point in time—to recover a loss, to undo a mistake, to savor a moment—but, just like Gatsby's past, ours too is located in a place to which we can never return. Looking back is, at times, necessary and even helpful. But dwelling on what was to the point that we wish to recreate it again in the future is unhealthy and, if taken to the extreme, can have dire consequences. To live a positive life, it's critical to let go of what was and celebrate what is. We may, as Fitzgerald wrote, be "borne back ceaselessly into the past" in our little boats, but we have more strength than he leads us to believe. We can pick up our paddles and row, pushing forward perpetually into the present.  


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I really enjoyed the book in high school (and the movie this weekend), and I came away from it this time differently like you did.

My favorite thing you said about it is definitely:

"...living a life focused on the past isn't really living at all"

That about sums it up! :)

Have a good day Dani,

Kyle - I saw the movie yesterday too! It was so good and made me realize even more how focusing too much on the past can make you crazy. It's so important to live in the now!

Thank you! What a beautifully written post. I very much needed to read that today.

Laura - You're welcome! It's a topic I really enjoy writing about and I'm so happy to hear that it's what you needed to read today. Stay present!

The only reason to visit the past is when it gets in the way of enjoying the here and now and the future.

With the exception of recalling happy memories...

I've only read Fitzgerald's lesser known works (This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned) but the themes you've identified in Gatsby seem to run through all of his novels.

His characters always seem trapped by the past and unable to move on. It's a seductive trap, and I think you've identified the reasons why e.g. 'flashbulb memories'.

Thanks for sharing!

This is such an amazing piece you have written! I have struggled about letting go of the memories I have with someone very important in my past. these memories have been built up so much in my head that i have seemingly turned them into "perfect" memories, when in fact there was so much negativity going on at the time. The minute I saw "Gatsby" I saw myself too. I was fighting to recreate these happy times with a person who was long gone from my life, and deserved no more of my tears. Thank you for this!

Brooke - I, too, could relate to Gatsby in some ways, but I've found that these tips have really helped me to stay in the moment and realize that the past isn't all that we imagine it to be. Hope these help you learn to let go as well!

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