This is a substack article.
Almost every story ever told has a happy ending. Even tragic stories squeeze some positive outcome from the death of a hero or heroine – selfless sacrifice, martyrdom, the triumph of courage, or some such thing. As a species, we are addicted to happy ever after endings for one good reason. We are programmed to survive and so a happy ending reinforces our sense of victory over our inevitable fate. A story that saw all the main characters destroyed and with no heroic obituary would never get published; there would be no market for it.
Now, this need for a happy-ever-after story has made its way into our legends and religions. So-called spiritual traditions suffer from the same thing. The basic storyline goes like this. Life is a valley of tears, but with devotion to a savior or a set of practices, we can arrive at a different place – a more pleasurable place. It is variously called enlightenment, nirvana, moksha, salvation, samadhi, and promises some relief from the trials and tribulations of a life where we strive with all our being to survive, all the time knowing that ultimately we do not. Every religious and spiritual tradition offers some variation of this formula, expressing a basic human hope that a more pleasant existence can be found somewhere.
This is all very well and good, but what if the happy ever after stories are just that – stories to give us hope in the face of a seemingly meaningless and futile existence. Shakespeare at least considered that the sleep of death might bring more horrors than life:
To die, to sleep – to sleep – perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause. – Hamlet
Happy ever after stories are clearly needed by many people, and even if they don’t explicitly subscribe to one they may well subscribe to some form of comforting story unconsciously. It seems to be well recognized these days that religion serves a very useful function in society as a regulator and a source of hope. Nietzsche foresaw the approach of nihilism after we had killed God, and his prediction has come true with people living in a vacuum, in terms of morality and meaning.
The alternative to all of this is to simply accept the nature of things as they are in reality. Very few people have the courage or appetite for such a thing, although maybe the Buddhist tradition comes closest; but even here there are elements of a happy ever after story.
Each approach to our existential angst has its benefits and drawbacks. The happy ever after stories give hope and comfort, but there are many unsettling dissonances with reality. To try and be a realist and stare reality in the face is painful and requires courage, but such a person lives under fewer illusions and as such should be more prepared for life. In any case, if a happy ever after story can reduce suffering then it must be admitted that it is a good thing. The only problem is that people do kill each other in the name of their happy ever after stories, and so as usual the situation isn’t straightforward. There will never be a perfect solution to the irreconcilable fact that we strive with all that we are to persist in our existence knowing all the time that we must inevitably fail.