A Happy Ending Isn’t a Happily Ever After

end-happy-ending-quote-saying-Favim.com-680495_largeI believe in happy endings, but before you dismiss me as a romantic, let me clarify.

A happy ending isn’t the same as “happily ever after.”

A happy ending isn’t limited to times when you get exactly what you want.

A happy ending doesn’t mean there’s no darkness on the horizon and it definitely doesn’t mean nothing bad is ever going to happen again.

A happy ending is simply this: in the end, there is some possibility for redemption, a glimmer of hope that all is not lost.

I don’t know when we started to lose our capacity for hope as a nation, but it seems to me we’re on our way and in some Western societies, they’ve arrived.

The Washington Post ran a commentary this week by Michael Gerson, which described the practice of euthanasia in Belgium, a (seemingly) civilized society. When afflicted with a serious, or terminal illness, it is a basic right in that country to have assistance in carrying out your own death. The Belgian courts recently extended that right to prisoners with mental illnesses, saying in essence, if you don’t want to be alive, who are we to stop you? In fact, it’s our moral and legal obligation to help you.

My heart dropped as the writer considered the implications of the ruling. At what point is mental illness considered terminal? At what age do we give up hope for successful treatment and recovery? At what point do we start believing that the “right” to commit suicide when facing cancer, dementia, Parkinson’s, or the like, is actually a duty, or obligation? At what point do ailing individuals feel like they must act on the perception they are taking up too much space and time in their homes, or society? At what point past our prime do we become undeserving of our space?

In the last year alone, 1,800 Belgians exercised their right to die, up 25% from the previous year. Are these numbers a sign of a need that was previously unfilled, or of a society who has lost their cultural belief in happy endings?

When everyone surrounding you believes that who and what you are in this moment is all there is, then you are in trouble (and so are we). The one who is suffering cannot be relied on to see the route to healing for themselves. That’s asking too much of them, to carry the burden of their pain and the weight of possibility as well. It’s our obligation to hold that hope for them. We may not feel like happy endings are real, but we’d better believe it anyway, because it’s the only hope for our future.

A happy ending says that when everything is lost, something can be gained. When we are broken, something new will be made. When all is dark, it’s because we can’t see the light, not because the light doesn’t exist.

While we are well, we need to repeat these truths to ourselves over and over again, so that we can remember them when the bad days come.

Every day, in public schools across America, kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance, claiming that our nation is “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It’s a good thing too, because the evidence to the contrary is everywhere. It doesn’t always feel like our country is on the right track, but our common belief in those foundational values allows us to press on and reach for our higher selves, instead of giving up on the system. We need to bring that same level of commitment to the way we value life itself, not just the structures that govern it.

As individuals we can’t believe in happy endings all the time. That’s why we have to believe in them as a society, as families, as parents and spouses and siblings and friends. We have to talk about them, share them, celebrate them. We have to saturate our culture with the knowledge that just because we can’t see the way out, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

I find it discouraging that so much of our cultural conditioning leads us to believe that ‘happy endings’ are for fools and fairytales. Happy endings are for fighters too. Like Winston Churchill, I believe that we can “never, never, never, never give in.” But Belgium has. In the name of choice, they’ve lost sight of our collective human responsibility to struggle together to make meaning from our lives and our deaths.

I am not unsympathetic to those in mental and physical pain. I would never make a blanket judgment about someone’s obligation to live through unspeakable suffering, or the choices they make in those moments, hopefully surrounded by loved ones. But I want to make my stand on the side of hopefulness. James Finley, one of my teachers, commented recently, “Few people in hospice recover, but many people in hospice are healed.” Healing, of any kind, is a happy ending, for those who are leaving and those left behind.

Ultimately, a happy ending isn’t primarily about how we face the end of our lives, though that’s what got me thinking about the subject. A happy ending is about how we face the disappointments we are handed each and every day: the too-small bank account, the unflattering gossip, the college rejection letter, the nasty fight with our spouse, the team our kids didn’t make and the friends who don’t want to play. Do we believe something good can come from this bad?

No matter how many movies, books and songs try to convince me otherwise, I believe in the power of happy endings. When I look the “bright side,” it’s not out of naive optimism, or willful ignorance. It’s an intentional choice. How else will I meet those final challenges without a daily practice in the hope I claim?

Where is my happy ending? Right here, wherever I am.

 

Four Eyes are Better than Two

I've got my four eyes for every occasion.

I’ve got  four eyes ready  for every occasion.

Since it’s been six weeks since I last posted a blog, this confession might come as no surprise to you.

Sometimes, I forget I’m a writer.

Summer is not an ideal time for writing. It’s a time for being and doing. Whether I like it or not, it’s time to be with my children. Without school, they are simply around more. It’s also a time for doing, since they need more rides, more meals, more entertainment, more money, more looking after. So between all my doing and being, there has not been a lot of time for writing.

But summer’s end is quickly approaching and my thoughts have turned to writing again.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece called, “Standing on the Threshold,” about how a far off dream of going to seminary was going to become a reality this fall.

I blinked; summer passed. It’s fall.

I leave for school on Sunday and I can hardly believe it’s here. Though I will only be gone for a week, it’s the start of something new. It felt like an important time to write again, to mark where I am, where I plan to go and what I hope to do along the way.

I heard a sermon yesterday at Keara’s back-to-school mass at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace. The gospel was the story of how Jesus cured the blind man. The priest himself looked like he could relate. He wore thick glasses and without them, I’m not sure he could see at all. He shared that growing up, he was called “Four Eyes” by many of his classmates. They meant it as an insult, but today he takes it as a compliment.

The priest told the story of watching a young, blind boy go to communion. He used a cane to check what was in front of him, but his mother walked behind him with her hands on his shoulders to guide and protect him. The priest admitted that if someone asked him to describe his mother, he would say that she is 5’7,” with blue eyes and brown hair. If someone asked that little boy, he would talk about his mother’s demeanor, her voice, the feel of her hands, her care. The boy, out of necessity, moved beyond his first vision.

Too often, the priest mused, we see only with the two eyes in our head. We take in what we see; we judge it, process it and put everything in its proper place. But how much are we really seeing if we only use our two eyes? We stay on the surface of things, like physical appearance and condition, but miss the essence. We stop short, not plumbing the depths and complexities of people and situations. We see quickly and partially, but unfortunately, we assume we are seeing all.

If left to our own devices, we think the first set of eyes are all we have, when in fact “Four Eyes” applies to us all.

I am a pro at using my first set of eyes. I’ve always been adept at learning anything and everything (except complex math) and spitting it back at the appropriate time – when needed, or when needed to impress someone. And though going to seminary has always been a dream of mine, one of the reasons I’ve held back for so long is because the ones I’ve encountered seemed to focus on the first set of eyes.

What do you know? What can you learn? What can you prove? What can you write, explain, or deduce from what you’ve seen?

I jumped through all those hoops in graduate school. I cared passionately about the subject matter, but it was all words, and head knowledge. It was learning for it’s own sake, instead of the greater good. I couldn’t imagine learning about God, Love, forgiveness, compassion and mercy in that way, with my first set of eyes. They simply don’t see enough.

I want to develop my second set of eyes, the eyes of the heart, and that is what The Living School offers.

At one point in his sermon, the priest held up a mirror to one of the girls in the assembly and asked her what she saw. “Myself,” she said simply. He turned the mirror to his own face and said, “That’s funny. When I look in the mirror, I see beauty.” The girls giggled, but he was serious. He countered that when they look in the mirror with their first set of eyes, they judge the surface that is reflected back at them, and usually they will find a flaw (or many), but if they can look at themselves with their second set of eyes, they will see beauty and goodness and infinite possibility.

The eyes of the heart are the eyes of God.

The eyes of the heart see past the surface, beyond the masks, the posturing, the pain and scars of this world. They know that everything belongs. They may not understand how, or why, or when all things will be reconciled, but they know it is true.

There are many ways to nurture our second set of eyes, but first we must acknowledge they exist. Many of us deny it, clinging to Rousseau’s folly that “I think, therefore I am,” or else living a kind of practical (and pragmatic) atheism, even if we claim a religious tradition. We follow the letter of the law we see, rather than the spirit of the law, which takes longer to discern and requires a comfort with ambiguity.

But when we acknowledge our second set of eyes, we also need to start using them, all the time. We can’t leave them at home on the shelf, or tucked away in our coat pocket for when we are feeling particularly brave. We can’t just pull them out for an hour on Sundays. We have to wear them whenever the need arises, whenever our ego hastens to judge, categorize, or dismiss something, or someone that makes us uncomfortable.

When I was a little girl and got my first pair of glasses, I remember the doctor telling my mom that I should only wear them for about an hour. I could wear them a little longer each day, but if I tried to wear them for too long, too soon, I might get a headache, feel nauseous, and even disoriented.

I have to admit that seeing through the eyes of the heart can make me feel that way too. It’s like the things I knew to be true – about what was good and bad, helpful and hurtful, successful, or a failure – aren’t just that anymore. Most events bring both good and bad; they hurt me and help me; they break my heart, but when it heals, it leaves all sorts of little cracks that let the light in. When I keep the eyes of my heart open, I am more able to see the beauty in everything.

Over the next two years, I am going to try to see all that I can with my double vision.

Thanks for reading and joining me on my journey.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift. The rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant, and has almost totally forgotten the gift.” –Albert Einstein, who I’m pretty sure had four eyes