What Do Gatsby, Depression, and Social Media have in Common?

What Do Gatsby, Depression, and Social Media have in Common?

In my other life as an English teacher, there is nothing that makes me happier than when explorations of fictional works with students intersect with real-world issues. And…if they relate to issues of mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual health, I can think of no better place to share them than with our community here at WellnessWrx!

One thing I enjoy about my role as an English teacher is getting to hear insights and revelations from my students that occasionally surprise me with their brilliance.

The Great Gatsby is an old standard on many high school reading lists around North America. I read it in high school, now I have the pleasure of teaching it. Who can explain the mystery of time?

Jay Gatsby, the book’s central protagonist, is a man caught in a dream. He wants to attract the affection of Daisy Buchanan, an insatiably materialistic heiress from a wealthy family, but he is afraid that she will reject him because of his impoverished background.  He constructs an image of himself through the acquisition of mansions and expensive cars, throws boisterous parties filled with men in designer suits and women in glittering sequined dresses. Unhappy with his true beginnings as the son of Mid-western dirt farmers, he invents fantastic tales of aristocracy, military exploits in Arabia, and an Oxford education.

As we discussed this, my Grade 12 student made an observation worthy of an English faculty graduate thesis. She observed that Gatsby’s life is a 20th Century parallel to social media. A brilliant insight from the mouth of a 17-year-old to be sure!

I thought about this over the following days and it made more and more sense. Gatsby created an avatar of himself, a false persona. He showed the world not who he was, but who he thought they wanted him to be.  

As I scroll past images on Facebook of people I know sunning themselves on distant beaches, or my uncle leaning against his new Mercedes, it occurs to me that, here too, there is a certain element of the unreal, the most exuberant moments of a life, curated for effect. 

Recently, I was watching a lecture by the American psychologist Johnathan Haidt. Did you know that incidents of depression and suicide have doubled, and in many places tripled, among Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2009) who are now reaching their teens and early 20’s?  For those of you who may be wary of dubious statistics, these are based on suicide attempts and hospitalization rates, not just conversational reporting. And it’s happening all over the world. 

It would not be an overstatement to say that this constitutes a cultural emergency.

Gen Z  is the first cohort to grow up with social media from childhood. Social media is the mirror image of an individual’s self-worth measured through the instant feedback mechanism of a smartphone.  you can’t build an edifice of self-esteem on the quicksand of likes, shares, and tweets! I don’t have the answer, but I do know that, as a culture, we need to come together to take a serious look at the question.

It is easy to be spellbound by the images we see on the two-dimensional surface of a screen, to get sucked into games of comparison that make us feel alone, excluded, or less than.  But there is a clear difference between image and reality. When this difference is obscured, we get a distorted reflection of ourselves, and it is time to switch off our screens and seek authentic sources of renewal.

Religious Jews celebrate the Sabbath every week.  For a 24 hour period from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, there is a complete renunciation of technology. This means no driving, no computers, no cigarette lighters, not even the flicking of a light switch. Why? Because the absence of technology, the not doing with one’s hands, the reduction of physical activity down to the barest necessity, provides a space for contemplating the sacred and finding meaningful connections with those around us.       

There are also secular equivalents of such sacred rituals. When I lived in Korea, I spent many evenings at the jimjilbong, or bathhouse. The jimjilbong is an experience with two phases. First, men and women are segregated into separate bathing areas.  Here, women can bond with women, and men with men, while enjoying a hot bath in mineralized water. After that, both sexes meet in a common area where the whole purpose is to spend time together in a cloistered environment shut off from the world outside.

Such sources of connection and renewal are too often missing from today’s world.  So I leave you with a question: When you are not busy with your devices, how do you nourish your soul? What are your sources of renewal?

And if you haven’t already, you should consider reading The Great Gatsby, it’s an excellent book.

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