Culture

‘Happily Ever After’: The lie of finality

Imagine the knight — you know the guy — the one who braved the dragon and saved the fair maiden from the tower. He fought for his love and though it almost broke his body and spirit, they made it out alive on the other side. He and his maiden rode off into the sunset on a horse.

What pushed the knight through it? What drove him to take on a DRAGON? Was it his love for the woman in peril? Or was he just born to fight, to scramble for an objective beyond himself?

Whatever, they lived happily ever after.

Later that year the two of them settle down, probably on a farm of some sort. I know many warriors, so I’m going to guess that there’s a good chance the knight’s eye will always be on the next battle. Winter is just around the corner? His eye is on spring and how to get there. His fence isn’t properly upright and secure? Better get out there and fix it. He focuses on these things because they are reasonable, necessary objectives to be taken care of. But in the process, he neglects the very things that he’s fighting for — he doesn’t tend to his relationship with his wife or his children. He doesn’t tend to himself or his own personal growth.

He considers himself a man of objectives, but really he’s just a man driven by being discontent with his present situation. And he doesn’t realize there’s a difference.

He found the quiet life on the farm, but there was no happily ever after. There was struggle after struggle — none of them as glorious as the dragon, but all of them necessary and all of them wearing on his soul, the familiar daily grind. Happiness and well-being are secondary concerns, tertiary concerns, and then not concerns at all. “Life is hard, get on with it,” he says to his children.

As he fights these battles, he begins to feel the distance between his wife and growing children. He feels the a void growing within himself like a tumor as he departs from his own soul, in some strange way.

One day he will be lying on his death bed, looking up at the maiden who has earned the wrinkles on her face just as he has. And he will see her soft smile and feel her warm touch and realize a terrible truth.

It will dawn on him that he could have slain the dragon, run the farm, built the fences, and survived the winters anyway. He could have done all of these things, had the same life on paper, but he could have enjoyed the vast majority of it. Had he a bit more presence of mind, a few extra drops of wisdom, and a shift in attitude — he could have done it and chosen happiness all the way through.

“Happily ever after” could have started when he was a boy, long before he even knew about the maiden and the tower she was locked in. He could have trained all the same, perhaps even harder, relishing each day of hard work instead of obsessing over the future battles to come. The result would have been the same; the difference would have been that he would have led a life appreciated.

But it’s too late now.

The story of the knight, maiden, and dragon is pretty popular across the board. But what happens next?

“And they lived happily ever after.” What exactly does that mean? When you read it in a fairy-tale, were the characters then magically transported to a world without strife and conflict? Was their relationship easygoing and did every little argument end with an amicable solution?

Okay, maybe I shouldn’t pick apart the tail end of a kid’s book too hard, but the “happily ever after” idea is pervasive among adults as well. Many of us – either consciously or unconsciously – believe that we can find a happy ending.

“Once I get that job.”
“Once I get promoted.”
“Once I get out of this cubicle.”
“Once I’ve paid off my debt.”
“Once I find the love of my life.”
“Once I’m free from this person.”
“Once I’m retired.”

We think that if we drop the profound unhappiness of our current situation, we’ll also lose our drive to make our situation better. And yet, there is nothing that says this has to be the case. Countless people throughout history have led ambitious, successful lives without having to suffer in misery and malcontent every step of the way. Many successful figures have also had successful families and/or friendships.

In fact, some of the happiest people I have ever met live under some of the harshest circumstances imaginable. Why is that? They certainly haven’t rolled over and grabbed “hope” like a last ditch effort to feel good — these people also fight harder than anyone I have ever met, all in the name of making a better life. Choosing joy never robbed them of their desire to improve their situation. They just haven’t bought the “happily ever after” myth that many of my fellow Americans buy into. Instead they choose the “happy right now” option.

Conflict will always be there – and by conflict, I mean real conflict that rips your guts out and splatters them on the table (so to speak). That might be a war, or it might be a series of life circumstances that puts you in a hole of debt you need to crawl out of. It might be a relationship conflict with your spouse, or it might be a black hole of loneliness when it feels like you have so much to give, but no one to love.

You fight these battles — some literal, many figurative, and the hits just keep on comin’. You discover that finality is a lie, and the battles continue, over and over again.

So what do you do?

Just as life is full of battles raging on your doorstep, it is also teeming with beauty and grace every single day. We must become accustomed to finding joy in the present, despite the fact that we’re constantly in the midst of some struggle or another.

“But THIS is the real struggle, once I get past it THEN the other struggles will seem easy, and I’ll be happy.” I’ve heard that lie before – it’s the same one I’ve told myself over and over again, year after year.

The truth is that finding joy in the present is a skill — if you don’t develop it now, you can’t expect to have it later. Circumstances don’t dictate happiness, your attitude does. Seeing the rates of depression in rich folks and rock stars should be obvious proof of that. Conversely, the most joyful people I have ever met are the Karen – a tribal group in rural Burma/Myanmar who have been the target of wartime atrocities for over 70 years. That means rape, mass-murder, torture — dashing infant children against trees, for example. And that’s on top of living in an unforgiving jungle.

So many of them have chosen to find joy in their day to day lives. It’s not a last resort, futile hope; it’s honest and it’s real, and it certainly overpowers the silly “realist” pessimism you get out of a lot of Americans these days.

This may take work as it’s not an easy skill to acquire. It may take countless hours of meditation or prayer; it may take therapy, or it may take inward reflection or opening your mind to the thoughts and ideas of others. It will certainly take work, but that work can start today. No one else is going to start it for you, and no circumstance is going to be right enough to make you happy on its own.

The Karen are an inspiring people, and they always seem to be smiling and laughing.

Don’t look for a happy ending, look for happiness today, right now. Do the same tomorrow and the next day. Hone the “find happiness in every day” skill until you’ve mastered it, then keep going.

It doesn’t mean you have to stop striving to make yourself or your situation better, which is absolutely important too. But if unhappiness is your driving factor for your pursuits, then don’t expect happiness to be waiting for you at the end of whatever struggle you’re fighting.

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homanj1
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homanj1

My three step program:
1. BE PRESENT-Put down the phone and engage your family when with them.
2. IF YOU DON’T LIKE YOUR LIFE ONLY YOU CAN CHANGE IT.
3. THE FIRST THING YOU SAY TO YOURSELF IN THE MORNING SETS THE TONE. Make a choice to have a good day.
My kids have heard this often enough they now say it to their kids.

susanh
Member
susanh

I love your three step program!

homanj1
Member
homanj1

Mrs H has her head on straight. I’ve learned a lot from her.

susanh
Member
susanh

You two are a great team.

rynosbucket
Member
rynosbucket

Clutch, Luke. One of your best write-ups.

Yankee Papa
Member
Yankee Papa

Luke, “Once I get that job.” “Once I get promoted.” “Once I get out of this cubicle.” “Once I’ve paid off my debt.” “Once I find the love of my life.” “Once I’m free from this person.” “Once I’m retired.” “Once I win the lottery…” (You forgot that one… :#) It’s not just living in the future. The knight will always remember the moment that he massively exceeded his own expectations and “…slew the dragon…” Working up a sweat mending the fences, he thinks that this is just a break… He’ll be back at his “calling” soon enough. But then… Read more »

susanh
Member
susanh

YP, what a wonderful comment. Thank you.

homanj1
Member
homanj1

Luke-This really is an awesome essay. Didn’t mean to overlook praising your writing. Jh

Susan B
Member
Susan B

There is so much truth in this article, Luke. It really takes a shift in personal perspective to realize what truly matters and how to achieve it. Procrastination is one of my personal faults. I have spent too much time in the past putting off what I should have or could have done, by rationalizing that I wasn’t ready yet or conditions were not ripe. What’s another day…week…month…year going to hurt? I can still do it…. And it doesn’t happen. And time passes. And I’ve suffered the consequences of putting things off. Sometimes…others have suffered, too. Seeing I’ve caused others… Read more »

Mason
Member
Mason

You are wise beyond your years Luke. Well done.

clluelo
Member
clluelo

Someday never shows up , there is only today.

Yankee Papa
Member
Yankee Papa

Clluelo,

“…Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it put’s itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”

-Plaque on John Wayne’s grave-

-Yankee Papa-

susanh
Member
susanh

Luke, what an extraordinary and profound article. Thank you.

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

That is excellent advice, Luke. Life is to short to dwell through a lifetime of merely existing and being miserable. I have friends who measure happiness and contentment on success. They measure their “success” on their monetary achievements compared to their classmates, neighbors, keeping up with the Joneses, etc. To me, that is set up for failure and discontent. I listen to people brag about their large diamonds and gems, mink coats, blah blah, and I’m not impressed. I don’t have money to spend on that, and I’m not jealous of them for having those material things (I don’t wear… Read more »

Connor S
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Connor S

Luke – Great article. Your perspective is right on, it reminded me of a book I read a while back – One Thousand Gifts. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’ve found that I’m far more happy when I take time to be thankful each day. Your comments about the mirage of happiness-to-come reminded me of our early days in Ranger Batt. (wasn’t that a lovely time?). There are some circumstances that make it more difficult to choose happiness, but you’re absolutely right, the choice is always yours. Great piece, mate!

Joni Smith
Guest
Joni Smith

I have a sign in my kitchen that says “Think Happy”.. I do believe you make a choice each day how you will approach the day. You may not always be able to change your circumstances – i.e. family illness, personal illness, etc, but you can choose to try to find moments of joy and happiness and hold onto those to moments. I try to find something to laugh about each day. It doesn’t always work but it makes life easier to be happy when you can find something joyful to laugh about. The Karen are really an inspirational people.… Read more »

Yankee Papa
Member
Yankee Papa

Joni,

Couple of generations at least of American kids who’ve been spoiled. Don’t have the latest smart phone or cool sneakers…? Hang your head in shame.

-Yankee Papa-

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