What did you want to be when you grew up? Sometimes the question ends in hilarity, a dinosaur, a unicorn, or maybe some other type of animal. Sometimes it leads to dreams of a sci-fi future, deep space traveller, Mars colonist, maybe a superhero. Whatever the answer is, they all have something in common. No one dreams of being average, but the average exists because so many people fall into it. Most of us have our dreams die as the reality of our existence becomes clear. I say fuck that, dream big until your last breath, why not?
Dickens, not my favorite author. Great expectations is a book about a person born lower class, who dreams of a better life and to be fair succeeds for a brief period, only to end up average. It’s an odd story and the short version for those who are not familiar is a boy is born poor, falls in love with a girl of status who leads him on. Skipping over a lot, one day a secret benefactor has bequeathed him a fortune. There are a few plot twists, like the girl he fell in love with was raised to break men’s hearts, his benefactor turns out to be someone he wasn’t expecting, and as I mentioned he loses everything in the end.
Even if you have read the book, you may not realize that you (probably) didn’t read the ending Dickens intended. The book ends somewhat ambiguous. The boy, now a man travels to the home of the girl, now women, he fell in love with. She is a widow and after some talk they leave the garden they are in hand in hand. The man believing they will be together forever. We don’t get to know what she was thinking, but that wasn’t the ending Dickens wanted, it’s the one he settled for after his friends had read the manuscript.
The original ending has the boy, again now a man, run into the woman by chance, not intentionally. She had lost her first husband, but had remarried. The man finds a sense of piece getting to know what happened to her, but the book made it very clear that there was no romantic relationship between the two. In short, the boy had two dreams, to become a suitor worthy of the girl and to marry her. In the end he failed at both. His ideas of success as a boy changed as he grew up and while his experiences had taught him to value people based on character not class or status, which now matter more to him than wealth.
In some ways the original ending is “happier” than the edited version. Dreams change and while the man could never accomplish his boyhood goals, he learned along the way that there are more important things. Sometimes our reality limits our dreams. You will (most likely) never become a real-life dinosaur, sorry. Sometimes our circumstances at birth, just like the story, keep us from being great. The fact is, wealth and power give some more opportunities than others just by virtue of having wealthy parents. Sometimes fate has other plans for us and no matter how we struggle our dreams will firmly remain out of our grasp. That’s just the way things work sometimes, speaking from experience.
When I was a child I dreamt of being a scientist. I fantasized about building robots, being a superhero, creating advanced technology that would give people superhuman abilities! The reality of course is that is easier dreamed than done. The thing about dreaming big is that there is usually a very clear finish line where on one side you are a failure and the other a success. I think the journey matters more than crossing that line. The phrase goes something like, ‘Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.’ I’m not a fan of the metaphor, but I respect the sentiment.
Having ‘great expectations’ doesn’t mean you have to achieve them. We’re given one life and in that life you have all the time you could ever want, minus one minute. For me, the difference between being great and being average isn’t in the measure of what you accomplish. Afterall even I will, statistically speaking, be average no matter how hard I try. Who knows I could be lucky, but the point is you don’t know if you don’t try and sometimes you’ll find that the journey is more fulfilling than the destination.
I wanted to build robots, I wanted to be a scientist. I saw scientists as people who held secret and special truths, if only for a moment and I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to hold something magical in my hands, find something no one else has found, and marvel in wonder that after all this time the universe still had so many unknowns that I could find one just by looking. I may never hit my superhero dream, but like I said, dreams change.
When I was a child I wanted to be a scientist. As an adult, I am one. While adult me is often frustrated with my progress and the fits and starts of research in general it doesn’t hurt to remember that child me would be in awe of the work I’m doing now. Frankly, I’m doing things I never even dreamed as a child I could do. I’ve built robots just like I always wanted to, but I’ve also — metaphorically speaking — reached into peoples heads to pull out electrical signals and turned that jumble of mess into something useful. It never even occurred to me that was possible as a child.
Dickens ends his book, not with the characters death, but at an inflection point in his life. We don’t get to know how his story really ends and no matter which version you’re looking at, the ending is disappointing only if you ignore the journey that was made. Because the measure of any person’s life, like the measure of a book, is worthless if you simply flip to the last page and read the ending. Having great expectations isn’t about succeeding, it’s about the person you become just by trying. I’m not a fan of Dickens’ writing, but I like to think he would agree.