I just saw The Great Gatsby this week. And—what do you know!—I rather enjoyed it.
As a kid, I had to read the novel in English class, and I hated it. I think this is for at least 3 reasons:
1. It had an ugly cover. (Yes, I know it’s considered a work of art. I thought it was ugly and creepy.)
2. Every book is worse when you’re forced to speed-read it in between mountains of homework and then be tested on it. Tests make even Dr. Seuss stressful. Heck, I’d probably even hate my own book if I had to be tested on it.
3. I, um, might have skimmed some parts. Or not actually finished it.
There’s another reason. As a kid, I was horrified by stories about people doing bad things, and Gatsby is full of them: cheating on spouses, lying, covering up crimes, and way too much partying. When I read stories like this, I couldn’t get past my disgust at people’s sin to dig deep enough for any serious analysis.
But then I grew up. And today, I can appreciate stories like this for what they are—tragic, sometimes frustrating, other times illuminating portraits of human beings in all our complexity.
In real life, people make bad decisions. They lie. They cheat. They sin. They are human. And the stories I preferred as a child, where the “good guys” always make the right decisions and evil is something out there somewhere instead of in us, just don’t reflect reality.
Yes, as I’ve grown, there’s been a sense of innocence lost. I’ve realized that the people I always looked up to aren’t perfect. My family’s not perfect. I’m not perfect.
I mean, it’s not that I ever thought I was literally perfect. But as a kid, the knowledge of my own sinfulness seemed more like something I knew in theory, as a matter of theology, but not something I frequently experienced. I knew I’d sinned, but my sins were (it seemed) of the small variety—failing to do a homework assignment and not wanting to tell my parents, for instance. In theory, I knew we were all sinners, all equally fallen, but I still had secret lines I’d draw between the small sins I’d committed (and had asked forgiveness for) and the big sins only other people committed.
Because, see, I was a good Christian. I was better than them.
My biggest sin, undoubtedly, was pride—quite possibly the biggest sin there is, theologically speaking, but one that doesn’t seem so bad. Pride is a sin good Christians can commit and still think of themselves as good Christians. But there were certain lines I’d never cross, certain sins I’d never commit. Because if you crossed those lines, you might be forgiven, but you’d never be like me or the “good Christians” I looked up to.
Well, I’m 35. And I’ve crossed at least three of the major lines I said I’d never cross. (No, I’m not going to tell you which ones.) I’m more fully aware today than ever that I am a sinful person. Forgiven, but sinful. But forgiven.
I’ve lost my innocence—not just about myself, but about how the world works. I know now that the people I always looked up to aren’t as perfect as I’d imagined, that even good people can make really bad decisions.
Today, I can watch a film like Gatsby and instead of seeing bad people, I see just people—people driven by human emotions and desires, making bad decisions as we all do and reaping the consequences of their choices. I realize that this is the world we live in, and that the people who make such bad choices are essentially just like me. We’re emotional, broken, messy human beings with messy lives in a messy world. The evil isn’t out there, some wicked queen or fire-breathing dragon; it’s in us. It comes from us. All of us. ALL of us.
And in some small way, I mourn my loss of innocence, but in a bigger way, I’m glad for it. It makes the world more complicated, but it gives me empathy for other people when they do bad things.
I can see them as human beings, and love them even though I see all of their sin.
Which, I think, is how God sees us all.