Saturday, August 29, 2009

Happy Endings

Why is it that most literature and most of the films of the past century embrace some sort of happy ending? Whether you are reading a typical modern fiction bestseller, watching a romantic comedy, reading an epic children's series or watching an action movie, happy endings are inescapable! Not only are cheerful endings pervasive and abundant, but there is something about a positive ending that resonates with the soul of a person (this is primarily true in the Western hemisphere). Does everything always end happily? Is this a realistic expectation to hold in our modern world? Are happy endings simply a form of escape from reality, or do they symbolize a deeper cosmic truth?

You've seen it more times that you can count. The story centers around a major conflict. Some evildoer is trying to inflict his maniacal schemes upon the helpless masses. A badass fellow with bulging muscles and a lot of weapons comes in to try and thwart the evil scheme. Eventually things go badly for him, as one of his trusted comrades betrays him for the promise of power, or maybe a sack of money. Whatever. Yet, even when everything seems to be at its bleakest, when the villain's plan is finally succeeding, when life is about to change for a lot of people, somehow, a miracle happens. Our bloodied hero concocts a reckless scheme that has little chance of success. With loads of special effects and countless clips of ammunition, the villain and his gang of cronies are laid to rest in some dramatic fashion, the hero goes home with the pretty lady, and the masses live happily ever after. The end.

Or, perhaps the setting is a little bit different. A young, single woman is on the prowl for some guy to date or marry. After a long series of unsuccessful dates, eventually she meets a smart, fun and sexy guy. They go out a few times, but then things don't work out because he's not looking for a serious relationship. Then she talks to all her girlfriends, and cries over the fact that things never seem to work out the way she wants. Her life goes on in the ordinary sort of way, all of it seeming to have lost its luster. Suddenly, out of the blue, he calls her up and tells her that he can't stop thinking about her. A few weeks later he plans some over-the-top hijinks that culminate in a short and cheesy proclamation of how he wants to be with her forever followed by presenting her with an engagement ring. A few choice clips from the wedding are shown and then the credits roll. They all live happily ever after. The end.

Why is that we so desperately crave a happy ending, no matter how implausible? Is it simply a marketing gimmick? All these happy endings lead us to believe that no matter how bad life gets and no matter how bleak our present situations are, everything is going to end well. It's all going to be okay, in the end. More hope and perseverance are justified, since eventually we're going to make it through to the other side and then we'll be fine. We're going to make it. It's going to be okay. Yet, one single glance around at the world should be enough to suggest that this sort of thinking is anything but realistic. In America, there are about half as many divorces every year as there are marriages. Those who try to be action heroes and stand up to evildoers don't often succeed. Last week I read the story of a fellow who tried to fight three crooks who were attempting to rob him. Here's how it ended:
I wake up and I can see my own reflection. I look bloodied and beat up and think I’m dreaming. I don’t know who I am, or where or what I’m doing. I quickly realize I’m awake and in a pizza restaurant and I’m looking in a mirror. There’s two nice people talking to me.

...the doctor tells me they fractured my eye socket and I will need plastic surgery and titanium plates implanted into my head.

...I just finished my operation and can now say I am MORE MACHINE THAN MAN since I now have a titanium plate in my skull.
Reality seems to often end with things turning out badly. Perhaps more often than not. My grandparents, who were married for over 35 years and are now in their late 70's are getting divorced. In the world of politics it seems that corruption, greed and a lust for power are prevailing over freedom, liberty, wisdom and common sense. Economically, our nation is setting records for new low points as unemployment skyrockets and bank failures become common occurences. Is it philosophically rational to hold out hope, when the world around us seems to be in destructive downward spiral?

If we look at films from other cultures, such as a pre-Westernized Japan, we see that most of their best movies end with the death of the hero. Rather than running from reality, Eastern thought seems to have reached a very different philosophy than Western thought. Instead of the notion that everything is going to be okay in the end, the Japanese aesthetic philosophy (wabi-sabi) could be expressed as, "It nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect." In Nogaku, a major form of classical Japanese musical drama, there are several different sorts of plays. One of the sorts of plays, Shura Mono, features the protagonist as a ghost in the afterlife. Eventually, the play builds to its climax where the warrior's death is shown. While it wouldn't be quite right to consider it a celebration of death, it is clear that one of the pivotal truths expressed is simply that everything ends. Whether for right reasons or wrong, whether in honor or ignominy, life ends for all.

Greek Theater presents yet a another perspective on endings. In their tragedies, often Greek plays would center around a prominent man who is neither especially virtuous nor excessively wicked. At some point, due to some mistake or moral blindness, the hero would experience a reversal of fortune. Sometimes death would be involved. Occasionally, the hero may gain a new insight about human fate, destiny or the will of the gods. The central theme of such tragedies is the idea that humans are flawed, either in their character or simply in their actions. William Shakespeare took a similar approach to writing his tragedies, perhaps being influenced by Aristotle, and most of his tradegies end in the deaths of all the major characters. These sorts of tragedies force the audience to take a reflective look at their own lives and consider the moral paths of their actions. If moral flaws can have such a profoundly disastrous effect upon one's own life and the lives of others, then it is critical to examine life and to temper weaknesses of character. Perhaps one way to express this aesthetic philosophy is that even seemingly minor shortcomings can have calamitous effects.

As you see, modern theater and literary works seem to bear a very different message than works from past times or from Eastern cultures. Although it would be easy to dismiss the modern attitude that everything is going to end well as simply irrational optimism, I don't think that is the whole story. Christianity may be the reason that the Western world holds such a hopeful outlook on life. Apart from a belief in heaven, it is hard to escape the philosophies of the East which cling to the transcience and ultimately illusory nature of reality. If there is no God, there can be no real hope for cosmic justice. If life ends at the grave then the nihilists are quite right to declare that life lacks any ultimate meaning and that all is futility. But the ancient Greeks didn't have Jesus. Christianity was completely foreign to pre-westernized Japan. Maybe that is the answer. Jesus saw the condition of the world, the state of the human heart and brought a message of hope and redemption. He taught us that there is a way to overcome the sin nature and to live in newness of life. Yet, his preaching went much further than that. Jesus boldly preached the reality of heaven and taught that how we live in this life has eternal consequences. Christianity alone offers the answer that through Jesus Christ's triumph over death and sin on the cross, death is ultimately powerless. Christianity alone offers the answer that reward and punishment in the afterlife is directly determine by works in this life. No good deed will go unnoticed and no evil action will be left unpunished. These are central messages of Christianity.

If modern happy endings are based on the philosophical truths that stem from Christianity, then they certainly aren't appropriately qualified. Christianity doesn't promise that things will end well for everyone. Jesus doesn't say that things are going to work out great in this life at all. The message of Christianity is that those who are righteous followers of Jesus Christ will endure certain suffering and pain in this life, but that in eternity every tear will be wiped away. The message of Christianity is that those who are not followers of Jesus Christ, and those who prefer living in carnal hedonism or wickedness, are guaranteed an eternity of suffering. However, when you strip away all the controversial elements of those truths (such as condemnation, justice and punishment), the message of Christianity sounds an awful lot like, "Since God is loving and merciful, everyone will live happily ever after." To me that sounds similar to some of our contemporary televangelists and best-seller authors. But it's not the truth. Just because we want everything to end well and for everyone to live happily ever after doesn't mean that reality will match our expectations.

The truth is, Jesus teaches that suffering, pain, turmoil and sacrifice are facts of life in this world. To those who live righteously, those are promised in greater degrees. Happy endings won't come soon and they won't come easily, but they are promised to those who persevere in their devotion to Jesus Christ and their love of righteousness. For everyone else, they are an empty delusion. The Christian view of the ultimate triumph of good over evil, of cosmic justice and of righteous living is not swift and painless. Virtuous living is a daily battle requiring courage, dedication, moral fortitude and commitment. The Greeks were closer to the truth than they realized. Happy endings only come to those who are vigilant, watchful and wise. Don't be deceived by the baseless, but well-meaning optimism of American culture. Not everyone lives happily ever after.


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