Lance, Andy and Elliott: Gump or Gatsby?

Gastsby meets Forrest Gump: boats against the current

Posted Jul 30, 2013

We can look at public figures trying to make a comeback after a public failure and wonder whether they are trying a slick escape from their past or they are courageously accepting it. Will Lance Armstrong ever cop to what he did? Do Andy Weiner and Elliott Spitzer really deserve the next chance?

Two big movies can help us here. Forrest Gump had a destiny like his momma told him and he never tried to escape it—he just moved on into it and whatever the next chapter brought. Gatsby, on the other hand, had a destiny that he turned into a tragic fate because he did everything to escape it.

I recently facilitated a two-day session on planning for the next chapter of life with some well-to-do fifty-somethings. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s view of the tragic power of our personal pasts was mentioned twice—“and so we beat on, boats against the current, ceaselessly born back into our pasts”—the famous last sentence from The Great Gatsby. One participant who mentioned this Gatsby line said how depressing that statement is as it dooms us to our fated upbringing, like the poverty that Gatsby couldn’t escape in his headlong spectacular quest to get Daisy, the quest that eventually leads to his poolside shooting in his deserted mansion of excess.

It may be depressing—I’d rather call it sobering—but Fitzgerald did us a favor. He is reminding those of us who think of ourselves as totally free agents, able to build our futures in any direction we choose, that we need to confront our pasts. There is good in choosing our own direction of course: to earn a million a year like the people at the workshop, or to become a social worker and make little money but have inner rewards that many in business will never know. Self-creation is indeed part of our freedom and, conversely, there is power and truth in accepting the reality of our pasts as well. We may not want to, or be able to, escape all the dimensions of our lives that shape who we are.

Forrest Gump did the latter. He stayed in touch with his humble beginning, his limited brain power, yet he accepted his mom’s notion of destiny. Whether he became a superstar ping pong player or built a shrimp business, he took the good with the bad, the blows with the victories, and moved on.

What do you have—a destiny you accept even if it means taking on some hard truths from your past, or a fate you try to avoid but tends to catch up with you no matter what? The choice, in large measure, is ours to determine.

A few ideas on the scale of the everyday but important change, a less spectacular variety than a huge public failure, but useful nevertheless:

  • do a quick check on your LAQ—Life Acceptance Quotient. Are you running from something, like responsibility for a job you messed up, a relationship you did not really invest in? What are you in partial denial about—a relationship with a sibling that could be better if you weren’t so stubborn? A project at home that needs your attention?
  • look at a health habit or self-care practice that needs some work. Usually part of a bad current practice—not getting enough sleep, never exercising, drinking too much too often—started in your past and is trapping you now with the inertia of habit. Stare that practice down and think it through—what can you do to not live with excuses anymore and to get your health on better track?
  • look at a communication pattern that you need to improve—listening, or being more trusting so you can take people at face value, for example. What self-change can you take on for the betterment of the whole?

These ideas are simple ways of saying be honest with yourself and move into change that matters.

It is always important to look at ourselves anew. In what small or big ways are we being born back into our pasts like Gatsby? Take on your inner Forrest Gump, accepting life’s ups and downs but never forgetting who you are and where you came from. Life’s box of chocolates serves up surprises all right, but Forrest knew more than Gatsby about making his past work for him.

Lance Armstrong, Andy Weiner and Elliott Spitzer. Are they still spinning their own webs of their own fate, or have they moved onto a destiny that came with the hard lessons of public shame? We will find out.

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