Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Happily Ever After

I honestly believe that the lion's share of unhappiness in western society can be traced directly to the five words ending most children's fairy tales:
"...and lived happily ever after."
Many of us loved "The Graduate", Mike Nichol's film starring a young Dustin Hoffman and Ann Bancroft. But almost no one remembers the ending - which was the movie's fulcrum, transforming it into a 105 minute shaggy dog story.

Benjamin, an aimless recent college graduate, is discontent with his family's suburban bourgeois values. In his torpor, he allows himself to be seduced by Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's partner. He then falls in love with Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine, but her parents, to say the least, disapprove. They drive Elaine away from Benjamin, and when she's about to marry some jock named Carl, Benjamin storms the church. Elaine, realizing she always loved Benjamin, runs hand-in-hand with him out the door.

What happens next, which few remember, is that Elaine (in full wedding dress) and Benjamin (a sweaty mess), in their euphoria, get on a bus. They find seats, and the camera fixes on them for far longer than you'd expect while they catch their breath, compose their faces, and leak, visibly but ever-so-slightly, into the next story, whatever it may turn out to be (and "happily ever after" ain't it). Nichols has undermined the fairy tale structure upon which his simple story hangs. Ok, we've got each other...for now. But, um, now what??

The truth is that no one has ever "lived happily ever after". There are no happy endings; only uncertain beginnings. Yet we believe in happy endings, almost as a birthright, because the notion was instilled in us at such an early age. Indeed, I see myself and my friends scrambling desperately for a sensation of having landed...of having ducks in a row, needs met, entropy under control, pain averted, noise quieted, tasks completed, and destination reached. Finally, some repose, please, so the real living can begin!

We yearn to be nouns, but life's a verb, with no actual repose. For those with happy-ever-after dreams, existence seems like a crazy-making never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

The girl says "I do", but transforms into a wife, and relationships are hard. You sell your company, but queued life issues aren't solvable with money. You find the house of your dreams, but, woops, what's this nasty cough?

Nothing ever ends, much less ends happily. It's a dynamic swirl, a never-ending question of "Now what??". Problems and change are the very fabric of living, not distracting turbulence to be negotiated en route to an imaginary landing strip. We live in the verb form of unceasing transition, and "happy" is the adjective we might choose to affix to that verb. It's an optional tint for the glasses through which we view change, both pleasant and unpleasant.

Update: if the above explains the roots of stress, this previous post offers a practical approach (and links to some related thoughts).


. said...

EXCELLENT post!!!!

Pau said...

Here's young Dustin Hoffman two years older than in "The Graduate" acting in one of the saddest movie endings of them all. What happened next?


James Leff said...

Midnight cowboy. Awesome. Thanks, Pau!

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