From the archives: November 17, 2013
We’ve all seen it before. It ends every fairy tale, every storybook romance, every watercolor-laden animation of love.
…and they lived happily ever after.
When I was little, I LOVED those words. They filled me with a Zen-like serenity, a deep satisfaction. Of course they lived happily ever after! And everything was perfect! And the bad times were over! I was content with this vague, flowery, greeting card ending as a suitable goal. It seemed simple enough: Get through the hard stuff; arrive at the “happily ever after.”
As I’ve gotten older, though, I find myself struggling with the “happily ever after” part. When does it happen? What does it look like? What happens after that setting sun rises again, after the white horse gets tired, after the prince has to take off his armor and go to sleep and the princess discovers that, to her horror, he snores? (For the record, if the worst chink in your “happily ever after” armor is a simple, noisy sinus problem, this blog post is probably not for you, and you might need to look up the definition of “problem.”)
My sophomore year of college, I got my heart broken—and, by “broken,” I mean ground to tiny shards of something that might once have been gemstones. I came home that summer in a daze of despair. Where had I gone wrong? What had I missed? Why had my picture-perfect romance failed to reach the golden sunset of the “happily ever after?”
Like any good college student, I decided to study the most reliable sources of “happily ever after” love: romantic comedies. I sat down with a legal pad and pen and watched couple after nauseating couple fall in perfectly-scripted, stars-in-their-eyes, swallow-the-moon love with each other. I watched them face the inevitable struggle before coming to the inevitable conclusion that they were better together. I took copious notes, trying to pinpoint that one incredible moment where pheromones had collided and chemicals had reacted. After fifteen films and ten pages of evidence (a true story of which I’m not proud), I learned one thing, and one thing only: Hollywood sucks.
Three-act structure is not love. And “happily ever after?” It’s just a denouement.
In real life, “…and they lived happily ever after” isn’t an end. It’s a beginning. It’s the point where the real story starts. It’s the point where “love” stops being a collision of chemicals and pheromones and starts being a decision.
(I know what you’re thinking. “Love? A decision?” Least romantic thing ever, right? I ask you this: What’s more romantic than a significant other who chooses, over and over, to be with you?)
In the Bible, Paul tells a church in Corinth that love is patient and kind, not jealous or self-seeking. I can say with complete confidence that I love my brother—and that he, in turn, loves me—but I absolutely get jealous of him. I get impatient with him. We’ve certainly said things that are unkind. I’ve definitely done favors for him with the intention of collecting those favors later. So is Paul wrong, or am I just really bad at love?
Maybe neither of those is true. Maybe love isn’t the part where we get jealous or mean or selfish. Maybe love is the part where we recognize those shortcomings—even when they’re inconvenient for us—and try to be better. Maybe love is the part where we get up the next day and decide to try harder to be more understanding. Maybe love is the part where, even when we feel jealous, mean, and selfish, we put those feelings aside and try to do what’s best for someone else.
Love might be patient and kind, but it’s also really freaking hard. (Don’t worry: that’s in Paul’s fine print.) Luckily for us, we’ve got time to get it right. Every time the sun sets, we’re offered a clean slate. So, if you didn’t quite make it to the white horse tonight, get up tomorrow and try harder. Trust me; you’ll have lots of other people trying with you.
On the road to the white horse, I stumble a lot. Maybe you will, too, but try not to look at these stumbles as failures. Look at them as opportunities for you to feel how much and how hard people are trying to love you back—imperfectly, brokenly, and beautifully, in the only way they know how.
…and they lived happily ever after…until the guy decided to be a completely selfish jackass, and the girl had the grace to overlook his ridiculous attitude until he finally decided to grow up.
…and they lived happily ever after…until the girl turned into a crazy, clingy, needy psychopath whose insecurities almost overtook the relationship, and the guy had the patience to hold her and reassure her and calm her down.
Maybe if we read more fairy tales like this, we’d be better at this whole “love” thing. Maybe we’d have a better understanding of how to be patient and kind, and we’d stop looking for perfection in human places.
I don’t look at “happily ever after” as the end goal anymore, though. I look at it as the start of something real.
So…go live happily ever after. Imperfectly, brokenly, and beautifully, one day at a time. Then, you know, maybe go make a movie about it. I hear Hollywood might need a couple. ;)