Once upon a time…
This is how the stories begin, and from the first four words we know the ending we expect. No matter how old we grow, we continue to be affected by the tales of our childhood. These stories fill us with dreams and expectations which, even as we take our knocks and draw on the mantle of cynicism, we cannot quite expunge. Somewhere in the deepest dregs of our consciousness, we all still dream of the happy ending.
Our lives are given over to the end result. We are a culture obsessed with the product, the end point, the elusive “conclusion” with little to no emphasis put on the process which got us there. The schooling we endure is for the purpose of a good job when we are older. The job we do is for the purpose of a paycheck, or a chance to climb that next rung on the corporate ladder. The paycheck is for the purpose of buying things, and the things are for the purpose of filling up that empty hole in our hearts where our life’s purpose ought to be.
We sit around and argue about politics, and that is for a reason, but the reason escapes most of us most of the time. Sublimated by the desire to win, to get the perfect one-liner, or sometimes the perfect insult, we forget that there is value in the conversation for it’s own sake. We even forget that the people with whom we are arguing are the very ones we are trying to build something with and protect, lost in the arguments for and against the wars, the laws, and the moral questions with which we all struggle.
The conversation itself has value.
When we talk about how we want to solve the myriad problems in our world, we look to the projected end result, without thinking much about how the process will change us. When solutions are accepted and implemented by our governments, we judge them by whether the results are the ones we predicted, with no regard whatsoever for whether the process of implementing them had unexpected effects on the people. We all want the genie in the bottle to come out and grant our wishes, without ever noticing that the point of the genie is to teach us about ourselves, through showing us how our wishes will not solve our problems.
In our storybooks, we are frequently visited by a version of the genie, though he sometimes wears other faces (the faerie godmother, the old wise man, the witch on the hill). The trait that allows us to know we are dealing with a genie is this: if someone offers to grant us our wish, and the results go terribly awry, we have been talking with the genie.
In many instances the main character of the story is angry and feels that the genie is trying to trick him. So do we all feel when our carefully laid plans have unexpected consequences. But what we fail to see is that the unexpected consequences are the point of the whole endeavor. They are how we learn about ourselves, how we build a foundation for making more responsible decisions. Simply turning away from them and demanding another wish merely ensures a new set of disastrous results. The genie will not, cannot save us from ourselves. That is our job, and the opportunity that the genie offers.
Rather than seeing that opportunity for the gift that it is, we too often try to strategize, try to find a way to game the genie. “I wish for a million wishes,” is the classic example. Sure…you can do that. But each wish will have its own consequences, for which you will be no more prepared than you were for the first one. We try to phrase our wishes very carefully, with the intention of leaving the genie no loopholes to subvert our wishes. But the genie has no need to work at corrupting our dreams. Our dreams carry their own disappointments, and it is our choosing to deny them that makes their manifestation a reality.
In politics, we talk about the “silver bullet”. In physics, we talk about the “universal field theory”. In faerie tales we look for the “happy ending”, and in a sense they are all the same. We want a solution, right now, that will guarantee no more uncertainty. The genie promises that we will never find it. With each new endeavor, we merely find more issues, more exceptions, more complications…more uncertainty. And there is no way around it, ever.
We don’t get to have the magic solution, for if we found it (unlikely as that may be) we would simply invent a new game, a new story. What we can have is a willingness to continue the experience, to face the consequences, and to look forward with an unflinching gratefulness to what comes next. Loved ones die, civilizations fall apart, science redefines the way we see the universe, and if you live long enough you will experience all of it first-hand. It hurts, it is frightening, and you only get one choice when it comes to get you: you can run, screaming at the sky that you were somehow betrayed, or you can embrace it in all its uncertainty and complexity and searing beauty. If you choose the latter, you recognize that you will be burned to nothing, eventually, so overfilled by your part in the world and your absorption of all it has to offer; so wrung dry by everything you have given, and worn thin by all the pieces you have offered up, that there is nothing left of you but a beautiful, complicated thought, and a little bit of energy that may or may not go on to some other form of existence. That is the way it is, and that is what it means to go on living.
We must stop looking for the product of our actions, and learn to evaluate our ideas (and ourselves) on the process which they take. It was the point that Machiavelli missed, the conclusion that Einstein could not abide, and the false ending of many a faerie tale. We will never see The End, but the story in between is not devalued because of it. The story is what matters.
As we near the end of another year, we are inclined to look at the product of the past year, evaluate our decisions on the fruit they have borne, and make promises regarding the accomplishments we will pursue. Perhaps we would be better off if instead we looked at the paths we have taken, the changes we have undergone. If we looked at the world around us and, instead of saying “yep, it’s still not perfect”, we looked a the efforts that were made and how they transformed us all. The dream of “happily ever after” is not a worthless one, but we miss the point if in dreaming of it, we come to despise the tale.