I adore fairy tales. I remember watching Beauty and the Beast as a young girl. I remember reading about Marie Antoinette in third grade and wanting to be a princess just like her. I remember listening to my mother tell me the story of The Princess and the Frog. Fairy tales rule of lives from our toddler years on. We are flooded with unrealistic expectations of love and happy endings. In spite of the extensive stories that my generation has heard over the course of our childhood, true happiness seems to be a deeply rooted problem.
In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 12.5% of teenagers reported depression in the last year. Contrastingly, Matt Hutson wrote, “It seems that for the past twenty years everyone in America has been on a relentless quest for a blue sky state of mind, in pursuit of permanent residence on the spectrum between contentment and ecstasy (Beyond Happiness). I find that many people are searching for happiness, but few truly find it. The idea of happiness is thrown into our face everyday, but the reality of fulfillment perhaps was never truly emphasized. In the words of Simon Sinek, “We were told we could have anything we wanted in the world, just because we wanted it,”(Millennials in the Workplace). Our parents wanted us to have all the happiness and opportunities that they couldn’t experience, and as a result, I have lived a good life thus far in my eighteen years, However, my life struggles have remained at a minimum, and I do not have a realistic grasp of how to cope with negative events in my life. We were given a Happily Ever After outline of life, and no one ever bothered to clue us into the reality.
For example, in his book 25 Truths, Ed Douglas states, “Significant and meaningful activities or accomplishments that take time, effort, and hard work are what actually bring happiness to a person’s life,” (65). Young girls are often told that marriage will be their happy ending. However, any married person will tell you firsthand that marriage is one of the most difficult things ever. I do not mean to say that marriage isn’t beautiful; it is. Matrimony is one of the most human yet simultaneously spiritual things that we experience in this life. The reality is that our lives are beautiful. They are not beautiful because of the rainbows and butterflies found in fairytales. Rather, they are beautiful because of the resilience and journeys that we experience as humans.
In my case, I was always sold the story of the American dream. I would grow up, go to college, get married, settle down, and then have a few kids. In her short story, “Happy Endings,” Margaret Atwood has managed to shatter and corroborate Western ideals for happiness all at once. Atwood uses unconventional writing techniques in order to do so. Upon first reading the story, we are greeted with directions to read section “a” if we want a happy ending. Naturally, a reader will do so; however, “a” is also followed by “b” and “c” and so on. Option “a’ contains the typical Western fairytale of a healthy marriage, satisfying job, and growing old. The reader then goes on to read the options following “a” and realizes that these are all variations of the same story with different versions of tragedy and infidelity thrown into the mix. Atwood then ends the story with an abrupt authorial intrusion stating,
The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary Die. John and Mary Die. John and Mary Die. So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun… That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why (305).
Altogether, Atwood walks us through multiple mini stories to show us how any situation in life will yield a similar ending, and then she jumps in with authorial intrusion to blatantly drive her point home in a much clearer form, but what exactly is her point? Some may say that her underlying theme is that we all die, and our lives are tiny blips in the universe. However, the very last sentence of the story, “Now try How and Why.” changes the focus of the message completely (305). Atwood is not merely stating that our lives are pointless and all the same. She is painting us multiple pictures to show us that most people do get married and die eventually, but the last sentence in her authorial intrusion suggests that we should not focus on the endings of our stories so much to begin with. The “How and Why” have so much more weight to them. Where we end up is not nearly as important of how we end up there.
In “The Dash,” a poem by Linda Ellis, a similar argument is made when the author states “What matters most is how we live and love and how we spent our dash,” referring to the dash between the date of birth and date of death on a loved one’s tombstone. On a tombstone, we emphasize the date of birth, beginning, and the date of death, end, but we leave a simple line to represent all of our life.
When one combines these works, they point to a similar theme: What matters is not where we end up, but rather how we get there. For example, two individuals can hold well regarded titles as a doctor. One may have been born into a family of doctors and lawyers, so it was obviously natural for him to follow suit and land in this career field. While the other may have come from a low-income, broken home, and this individual had to scrape by and struggle for every second of education that he or she earned in order to become a doctor. Both individuals ended up in the same place. However, the journeys of both individuals reveal more about each person’s character than the simple end goal of being a doctor reveals. This is similar to Atwood’s example of marriage. Some spouses in her works cheated. Others were murderers. Still others were not at appropriate ages for the relationship in question, but all these marriages eventually end with couples growing old together and having a satisfied life.
Atwood calls us to focus more on our story rather than the ending while Ellis calls us to ensure that we are proud of our story. We have one precious life, and we are far too often found looking to create a perfect end point in our life, whether it be our relationships, marriage, career, intelligence, etc., that we forget to make our life beautiful in the here and now. We forget that maybe the most moving stories that we have to tell do not possess power because they have a perfect, happy ending, but rather because they are filled with struggle and turmoil and were distinctly human. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said,
For what it’s worth, it’s never too late, or too early in my case, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start over all again.
Fairytales don’t exist. Life has struggles no matter what. The endpoint of a life does not make a happy ending if the journey is forgotten. Perhaps the journey never really does end. For example, typical fairy tales usually end when a princess gets married and she lives “happily ever after,” but what happens in her marriage? Do we call quits on our journeys once we’re married and neglect to grow anymore? There is always more to the story. There is more that the newlywed princess experiences, and there may never truly be an endpoint. Perhaps the purpose of life is really to love and grow and be, and we have created a fairytale ending as a selfish band aid for the reality of the difficulty of marriages, love, and growth. I will no longer continue to ask myself where I am going, but rather how am I getting there.