Happy endings don’t erase suffering. And I wouldn’t want them to.
Do we ever want to say that sudden, premature death of a mother with a 6 year old is ok? How could the passage of time do that? Do we even want that?
Throughout our culture, in politics, movies, books and bedtime stories, we are told about happy endings. Of course, it is sometimes reasonable to think that things will improve. There is no reason to be dogmatic that life is always a vale of tears; we know that life is often wonderful. ‘Everything will be ok in the end’ reminds us that everything passes. But that’s not the same thing as saying that things will be ok.
Happy endings have the effect of discounting our real, present suffering. No happy ending will change the past. We have suffered! That shouldn’t be forgotten! The only way to make the past ok is to wipe it from our memories. In the movie Men in Black, the agents used neuralyzers to wipe memories from the minds of people who witnessed their activities. But few of us would use one on ourselves. We recognize that our past is real and valuable. We work to minimize suffering, but once it occurs, there is something sacred about remembering it. Our experience can help others, but only if we remember.
And we need to ask why should happiness have to wait? It could be quite the reverse. Life can start out blissfully and end in tragedy. We know that happens sometimes. But ‘everything will be ok in the end’ seems to say that, despite appearances, there will always be a happy ending. We just need to be patient. Why do some people like to say this? Are they justified?
One way to be ‘ok’ is to fiddle with what ‘ok’ means. But if ‘ok’ can mean anything at all, it means nothing at all. How could it possibly be ok for a kid to be tortured, no matter what the eventual outcome? Emotional healing requires that we live in reality, so we must eventually accept difficult facts. But we don’t have to say they are ok. No loving person would say that torture or genocide is ok. The idea seems to be that bad things are not ok, but that they are temporary. But what reason do we have to think that bad things will eventually stop happening?
Well, we know one thing: we will die. Death is a loss, but that includes losing the bad stuff. Most of us don’t think of death as ‘ok’, though. We’re willing to put up with some bad stuff to have the good stuff in life. Most of the time, we think the good outweighs the bad, and that there is no way in life to have one without the other. But this statement suggests we can do just that, but only at ‘the end’. Life can be ‘ok’, but only when it’s over.
Here’s where the afterlife comes in. But it doesn’t solve anything. Infinite bliss in the hereafter doesn’t, and shouldn’t, cancel the real, present suffering of a 4 year old who has been beaten to death by his mom’s boyfriend over a period of 3 days. To say that his torture was ok because it is now over is to neuralyze ourselves to feel better. This is cowardly and callous. That kid endured his pain unbuffered. The very least we can do is not downplay it now to comfort ourselves.
Then we have the notion that suffering is somehow necessary to reach certain goals. But we know there are many ways to happiness. We all look for the least painful way to get through our lives. It seems that we sometimes engage in post-hoc rationalization. Once suffering occurs, we declare that it was necessary after the fact. Nick Vujicic says that being born without arms and legs has been a great blessing for him. But we don’t find people removing their limbs to achieve fulfillment. No, this guy only says that because he’s trying to make the best of things, and he goes a little overboard. http://www.lifewithoutlimbs.org/
I don’t think death or suffering are ever ok. They are our enemies. Without life and freedom from intense suffering, none of the things we care about can occur. That’s why we exercise, eat right, sober up, stop smoking, build hospitals and wear seat belts. We can say death is natural, but so is mental illness. So, we’re stuck. If a thing is ever going to be ‘ok’, it will have to be ok in the here and now. And if it’s not ok now, it never will be.
Bad things (and good things) happen. It is a disservice to those who die young or suffer horrendously to say that ‘everything will be ok in the end’. Much in life is not ok and we wouldn’t want to say it is, or ever will be. But we can still cultivate the good stuff while helping each other through the bad stuff. And we can do it without saying there will always be a happy ending. We can hold on to each other and face life’s worst together. And we can multiply our joy by savoring the many times that life is good, together.
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