"Only Gatsby was exempt from my reaction –
Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures,
then there was something gorgeous about him …
it was an extraordinary gift for hope such as I have never found in any other person."
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Voracious reader that I am, the other day I selected a book from the shelf: The Memoirs of Helen of Troy by Margaret George. Slightly more than 600 pages, this novel will tell the complete story of Helen ... her childhood, choices, challenges, dreams, hopes ... and the countries she brought to ruin.
I already know her story. At least, I know how her story ends. But I find myself reading the book anyway.
Why do we do that? Why read stories when we know how they will end? Why watch a movie when we know the eventual conclusion? Not only do we know that it will end happily or badly, but we know exactly how it will conclude. We know that at the end of Gone With The Wind, Rhett will utter the words "Frankly Scarlett I don't give a damn" and walk out of Scarlett's life forever just as sure as I know The Great Gatsby ends with the death of our "hero." I know that Denys Finch Hatton will die in a fiery plane crash that I won't see but will know is happening near the conclusion of Out of Africa.
But I read the books and watch the films anyway. And during Out of Africa when I hear change in the music and know that "it" has happened, I cry just as I cry when Wilson shoots Gatsby, sending him drifting to the depths of the swimming pool while Daisy walks obliviously away with Tom.
I love the movie Troy -- and not just because it's glorified eye candy. (No, I'm not a Brad Pitt fan ... much prefer Eric Bana.) But that's beside the point. I love the heroic beauty of that era. But I dread the moment when Achilles challenges Paris and wimpy Paris runs. I cringe as I watch the mighty and very noble Hector fight, knowing that he will eventually be horribly killed and dragged behind Achilles' chariot. I read The Illiad in college. I knew the story. I knew before I read it how the story was going to end. But I read it anyway. I watch the film anyway. And no matter how well acclaimed Achilles might be, I hate him every time he kills Hector. I know it's coming. I watch anyway ... and loathe it every time.
I don't think I'm alone here. We all have favorite stories be they books or movies. What Gone With The Wind fan among us doesn't want Scarlett to realize sooner that Ashley is a dullard and that it's Rhett who she really loves? Who doesn't want Mrs. Danvers to crash to her doom BEFORE she sets darling Maxim de Winter's beloved Manderley to blaze? Who watches The Man in the Iron Mask and doesn't want a change to occur before the moment when D'Artagnan dies protecting his son? Who doesn't wish Octavius to die horribly and thus allow Cleopatra to enjoy a life of passion with Mark Antony instead of suicidally playing with poison asps and plunging Egypt into centuries of Roman Rule?
But we watch anyway. Each of us reads along just as I pour through the pages of Helen of Troy's story and know that as her story progresses she will find love and bring destruction down on Troy ... and Hector.
Perhaps, like Gatsby, we have "an extraordinary gift for hope" that our beloved characters might just make a different choice this time ... that the ending might be different. Maybe Cinderella will smack down her Stepmother and go off and enjoy an independent, exciting life instead of waiting for a prince to rescue her. Maybe Jekyll will realize that evil cannot be separated from good. Maybe Heathcliff and Cathy can find a way to be together before death. Maybe ......
That "extraordinary gift for hope" sustains us when real life gets challenging. Like Tennessee Williams' Blanche DuBois, we believe in the Kindness of Strangers ... the goodness and potential of the people surrounding us. We feel their light and warmth. So we read along when we know the ending might not be what we want because ... because we enjoy the story. We find ourselves drawn in by the characters ... their foibles and follies and development. Their choices and conversations. Their connections and failings. We revel in the discoveries they make. We rally at their victories and curse their mistakes. We may know the ending, but we read on because their story is beautiful.
Just like in movies and books, each one of us does this every single day. Oh, we can choose to play it safe and shut ourselves off. Or ... We can open ourselves up and make ourselves vulnerable to people and experiences that inspire or intrigue us ... whether we anticipate the ending will be good or bad or just not to our liking. We treasure the people surrounding us at this moment even though someday they may leave. We play the game even though our team may lose. We audition for the role or interview for the job even though the answer may be "no." We explore the relationships even though the eventual resolution is inconclusive.
If you know the ending might be bad, will you avoid the story? Or, will you read on ... watch on ... play on ... laugh on? Will you open yourself up and invest yourself when perhaps that friend, lover or companion might someday walk away? And if you don't, what might you lose in your journey? What might that person bring to your life that would be missed if you played it safe?
One of my favorite sayings is by Flavia: Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Others stay, leave footprints on our hearts and we are never ever the same. Those people that stayed around and left footprints on our hearts might leave as well ... someday or even tomorrow. Or they might hang around. Or they might come and go and come back. You never know. But, the way I figure it, I'm better off that they were there than if I avoided them because .... "what if" they hurt me or left me or ... or ... or.
The oracles foretold that Helen would inspire great love, cause a great war and destroy a country. Yet we watch her story unfold ... we read the words anyway. I believe that we are better for the experience -- the good, the bad, the sad, the devastating, the beautiful, the passion, the joy, the highs, the lows, the pain, the laughter, the ____ (fill in the blank) than we would be if we closed the book too early.
As Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope says in my favorite TV Show Scandal ... "I don't want normal and easy and simple. I want painful, difficult, devastating, life-changing, extraordinary Love." Well, you don't get that by hiding in the corner and playing it safe.
I guess I'd rather have tears, scrapes and scars than miss the joys and passionate moments that come my way. I may know the ending. I may be able to predict the ending. But I enjoy the story as it unfolds. And, like Gatsby, I retain my extraordinary gift for hope as I read, as I watch, and as I live.
What about you? What will you choose? Are a few bumps, bruise and tears worth the ride to the highest heights or are you afraid of the lowest lows? If you know, predict or anticipate the ending, will you read on and ride it out? Or, will you close the book and choose something safer?
After all, sometimes the endings can surprise us ...