Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The People’s Republic of Happy Endings


Look how happy everyone in the People's Republic is!

Stories with meaningful endings are important. They fulfill a human need. Lest we despair, we need to believe that the routines, suffering, and sacrifices of life are worthwhile. We need to hope.


Unfortunately, the most pervasive narratives in our culture present a warped view of happy endings. Reality television is perhaps the most blatant example. In forty-five minute segments, the obese become trim, forensics teams solve baffling murders, and frumpy women develop both stylish wardrobes and improved self-esteem. Even though we all know that these shows are scripted and edited, our culture does not escape their influence. They echo formulae for success that seem to fit well with the optimism and democracy of the American spirit:

1. People can always solve their own problems if they want it passionately enough.
2. The path to success may be emotional, but it shouldn’t feel long.
3. The definition of a happy ending is getting what you desire.   

One problem with this recipe is that suddenly, it is everyone’s duty to fix their own problems and find happy endings. Why are you still fat if those folks on the show drop hundreds of pounds? Get with it! Desire it! Achieve it! It’s pretty much your American obligation. Society will fawn over you for 15 minutes once you do, but we’re kind of grossed-out until then. Unfortunately, we humans do not always get what we want, no matter how hard we try. Therefore, our narratives have created a situation in which, realistically, not everyone will have a happy ending, and yet it is everyone’s duty to do so. Perhaps this is why our culture has become so sensitive to words and phrases (such as “fat,”) that imply a failure to achieve.


(This is not an ad. It is an example).
Another problem with this message is the implication that if your success is meant to be, it comes quickly. The speed of your success is the new way to throw diviner's knucklebones and see if the gods are favoring your endeavor. Instead of teaching us to endure, this kind of narrative encourages us to drift from goal to goal in search of cheap results.


Worst of all, this recipe defines a good ending as the gratification of our own desires. It teaches us that we deserve to receive whatever we want (after only a brief effort), and subtly encourages us to use whatever means necessary to grab the happiness that we are all “supposed to have.” Ironically, most of the desires that we see fulfilled in reality T.V. are trivial.  This unfortunate attitude unravels the entire purpose of telling stories with good endings. If our goals in life are merely a series of minor successes along life’s path, they do not transcend us. They cannot provide hope that is bigger than our own feelings. They cannot comfort us when we fail or when we die.

We may feel that we are more intellectual, or more spiritual, or more sensible than the ordinary consumer of reality television, but we still belong to the same culture and pick up the same messages. It is important that we recognize the tyranny of this cultural message—we need not belong to the People’s Republic of Happy Endings. Unfortunately, many thinking individuals notice the silliness of our culture's addiction to cheap, happy endings, and conclude that happy endings don't exist. Such people write bleak books in which there is no meaning to anyone's lives. The only happy ending available in their stories is the protagonist's realization that he is unhappy and will remain so. This is why it is important to offer our culture a better, truer alternative.

Oddly enough, we will find greater happiness and joy if we recognize that we absolutely will fail in this life. Frequently. We won’t have enough passion and may have too much body fat. Yet all this failure does not rob our lives of meaning, because we are part of a far greater narrative than “Biggest Loser” or “What Not to Wear.” Lest we despair, we need stories that illustrate the true narrative that gives real hope. More on this in a future post.

12 comments:

  1. "Unfortunately, many thinking individuals notice the silliness of our culture's addiction to cheap, happy endings, and conclude that happy endings don't exist. Such people write bleak books in which there is no meaning to anyone's lives. The only happy ending available in their stories is the protagonist's realization that he is unhappy and will remain so."

    Have you seen The Sunset Limited? Good "discussion" movie.

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    1. Wesley, I haven't. The description on Wikipedia certainly looks interesting! Do the movie-makers seem to come down on one side of the argument or the other?

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    2. It's hard to say for sure. The group with which I watched it discussed where we thought Cormac McCarthy stood when he wrote it. Our consensus was he sided with White on an intellectual level, but still grasped in hope to Black.

      If you have a chance, I highly recommend it (with a group of folk). Save a couple hours for post-movie discussion: How closely does Black's gospel align with the Gospel of Christ? What effect did Black's view of original sin have on his overall theology? Is fatalism a necessary result of atheism? What would you have said to White? What would you say to Cormac McCarthy? etc. etc.

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  2. I love your reference to "diviner's knucklebones". I'd never thought of it that way, and yet it's so true! We (myself included) try to sense how easy the path is for us in order to deduce whether "God is on our side" (or "fate" or "destiny" or "the universe"). This is going to take more thought on my part. Thanks for spurring some introspection!

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    1. Yes, I think that is a definite fallacy that we can fall into-- and certain types of Christians (those who are always looking for personal, direct revelation from God and who think that success = evidence of God's approval) are particularly vulnerable to it. In the Bible, of course, God's chosen people/prophets/etc. seem particularly marked out for suffering.

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  3. Ah, yes. I'm still learning this at 37 yrs. of age. Your knowledge and wisdom is ions beyond your age.

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    1. Monique,

      Thanks for the kind words! Actually, being ions beyond sounds rather exciting, if a bit unbalanced. :-)

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  5. Hi Anna, thanks for leaving a comment on Greenmantle. You can find his books online for free eg Gutenberg. A good one to start with is The 39 Steps - the first in the Richard Hannay series; I think Mr. Standfast is probably my favourite - comes after Greenmantle, but you don't have to read his books in order.

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  6. Excellent post. Seems contemporary culture is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea-The Law Of Attraction and Samuel Beckett. It's naive to think that the world exists to accommodate all your dreams and wishes; and perhaps equally naive to assume that unhappiness is our inescapable fate in this world.

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    1. The question is, what is happiness, and how does a novel truly show this? I've been thinking about this lately but haven't yet written a post with my answer!

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