Some of us suffer from the compulsion to fiendishly poke into our chancre sores until tears pour out of our eyes. Replaying our past failures is a lot like that. Endlessly hashing over our squandered opportunities, we torture ourselves with fantasies of how glorious it would have been had we only seized what was rightfully ours. In many ways, Jay Gatsby’s enduring chancre sore is his refusal to let go of his sweetheart Daisy Buchanan. He inflates his lost love into a larger-than-life myth when she is hardly deserving of such adulation. In turn, he attempts to make himself into the myth of the rich business man, The Great Gatsby, in order to impress her. He then lures her into his world with all sorts of parties in which he invites the town’s most popular cliques. It all sounds so very high school. In the end, Gatsby’s adolescent aggrandizement kills him and the novel’s narrator Nick Carraway considers how helplessly immature we are, largely because we seem so incapable of learning from our past mistakes: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Pulling us “back ceaselessly into the past” of our high school days is The Myth of Squandered Opportunity, which compels us to obsess over our romantic failings and wonder how much pleasure we could have enjoyed had we only seized the opportunities that presented themselves to us. For example, I know three men who many years ago were driving from their homes in Bakersfield to attend a Los Angeles Dodgers game. As they were riding over the steepest ascent of the Grapevine, they saw on the side of a road a smoldering, overheated vintage Volkswagen van of a pale orange color. Standing outside of the van were four giddy, nubile, beautiful women, all Grateful Dead followers, “Dead Heads.” Even though their orange rusted van was near ruin, the sun-darkened hippies were still giddy from a Grateful Dead concert and they greeted their rescuers by waving their tie-dye bikinis and spaghetti-strap tank tops in the air like glorious semaphores. My three mechanically-adroit friends stopped with an exclamatory screech, helped cool off the wood nymphs’ steaming engine and spent the next hour making the van road-ready. The women were grateful for my friends’ help and invited the eager teenagers to accompany them to Santa Barbara for its annual Summer Solstice Festival. These were attractive women, the men told me many years later, earthy women who, abjuring perfume, wafted the natural-producing odors of musk and desire. But my naïve friends had already bought their Dodgers tickets and were determined to catch the game, so after profusely thanking the women for their kind offer, the three apologetic teens rode off to Los Angeles, leaving the glowing, irrepressible pixies behind.
Years later my friends do not remember the Dodgers game, but they are still haunted by all the “what ifs?” that accompany their stupid refusal to go with the harvest maidens to the Solstice Festival. Whenever they tell the story, they argue with one another over who was at fault for insisting that they abandon these luscious ladies in order to see some stupid, low-scoring baseball contest. Even ten years later, the mere discussion of their lost opportunity with the hippy goddesses reduces them to snarling, contentious animals. Bitter and resentful, they’re still possessed by all the unfulfilled possibilities that titillate their imagination and prevent them from sleeping in the deep of the night. They complain of insomnia, night flashes, half-conscious visions of splendorous encounters with those Bacchanalian sylphs. Chained to the memory of an unfulfilled opportunity, they can not live in the present and as such they treat their girlfriends, quite attractive in their own right, with flagrant disregard.
I suspect most of us are trapped in a time warp, unwilling to let go of a past “glory” that never really existed. How easier—and far more dangerous—to live inside our delusions than to tackle reality every day. I’m sorry to say but many of us are hard-wired to be eternally miserable, unable to live in the here and now because our minds and souls remain fixated on some mythical hot summer day when tie-die bikini tops fluttered in the wind like the undulating gleam of a paradise now forever out of reach.