There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: A people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time– or even knew selflessness or courage or literature– but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.
“And they lived happily ever after…”
My favorite words, really. At the end of every fairy tale. Optimistic stories about transformation, upward mobility, positive personal change.
Stories in which the heroine (well, not always a heroine but usually a heroine, so we’ll round up) improves her circumstances through twists of fate.
And at the end of every tale, there’s a standard way of fading to black. Those words. “And they lived happily ever after…”
There was a promise there, inherent in those words, that my young mind clung to: That there would be a happy ending. That a good life had a point in which conflict largely ceased. And a person could live in peace.
I wanted to be that person.
It squared well with how my parents seemed to view the world, particularly my mother. She was always concerned with being as comfortable as possible. No matter what.
An errant clothing tag could drive her mad. She cut them from all of her clothes. And even then, she had to give scratchier items to other people. Because she couldn’t tolerate them.
Forget about ideas that challenged the status quo. Those had no chance. They were a threat to her comfort.
No matter how hard I tried, I seemed to annoy her when I was a kid. Just by being me. And having ideas that were slightly different than hers.
No, Mom had a way she wanted her life to be. And anything that challenged that by being ever so slightly different… well, it was profoundly irritating. And needed to be cut out immediately.
Looking at Learning as Something I Would Someday No Longer Have to Do
I grew up very conflicted. Part of me craved challenge and growth. Part of me longed to improve my circumstances, no matter how painful it was to move away from everything I knew.
And another part completely doubted it was at all possible. Thought it was wiser and safer to stick to the places I knew. Keep with tradition.
I went to college with the idea drilled into me that the goal was to study and get your degree so you never had to study again.
Not with the idea that it was the beginning of lifelong adult learning in one sense and simply the continuation of a trend that had started in childhood in another.
But as I hit the workforce, I saw this idea didn’t square at all with the way the world we worked. You didn’t graduate from college and simply live happily ever after. You got a job, continued to apply yourself, and if you were going to be any good at your work — and possibly even be promoted one day — you continued to study and learn important information in your field.
If you wanted to do well, you continued that education.
And as I lived, I learned that while I once looked at learning as something I would someday no longer have to do, my views changed. I began to see learning as something I would get to do my entire life.
There’s No True Ending While We’re Still Alive
And as I began to have close relationships with other adults, I saw that relationships didn’t fade to black either. After a wedding, you didn’t automatically live “happily ever after.” No matter how many wedding vendors were committed to convincing you that spending tens of thousands of dollars would make the fairy tale come true, real life just didn’t work that way.
Life goes on. Even as one happy scene ends, the next begins. Maybe it’s happy, too. Or maybe it’s neutral. Hell, maybe it’s even a rough patch.
There is no true ending while we’re still alive. Happy, sad, or otherwise.
A Tradition of Artificial Closure
I was reading about the history of fairy tales the other day. And the famous line “and they lived happily ever after” came up… its origins. Its inclusions.
Apparently, in the story-telling tradition, it was never meant literally. Its purpose is to simply signal a particular tale is over. No historical reader would expect life to be sunny in perpetuity.
The phrase is there to give closure. Nothing more, nothing less. And it’s a false, artificial sense of closure. Like the words “the end” but with a bit of rosiness cast about their person. A traditional way of adding a clear point at which a reader can walk away from a story, without feeling invested anymore. Without wondering what other conflicts will surely befall them. What other trials and tribulations crop up after the end of this arc.
It was never meant to be something we should expect. Just as we were never meant to expect that the words “the end” would crash down upon us after a big moment in our lives.