Happiness is like those palaces in fairy tales whose gates are guarded by dragons: we must fight in order to conquer it.—Alexandre Dumas
One of my dear friends, Jane, whose birthday I missed yesterday and who writes a most wonderful blog, frequently reminds her students that the versions of fairy tales they see presented by Disney and the like are not true. When Hans Christian Anderson wrote The Little Mermaid, he justifiably kills his title character at the end; that’s right, the little mermaid dies. In the original telling of Cinderella, the evil stepsisters have their eyes plucked out. The tales penned by the brothers Grimm were bloody, vicious and violent. Why? Because such stories were meant to be cautionary tales, warnings against dangerous, self-centered, and inappropriate behavior. Life is not fair, the stories warn, and happily ever after is a myth.
This week has been a painful reminder of just how unhappy life can be. People we have admired, who have entertained us, who have sacrificed for us, who saved our lives, have passed on. Not just one or two people, as we are rather accustomed to hearing, but several people of some noteworthiness, have left us. Here’s a partial list, in case you weren’t paying attention:
- David Bowie, sing, actor, and creator of worlds
- Ernest Yazhe, the last of the WWII Navajo Code Talkers
- Noreen Corcoran, an actress best known for her role in the television series Bachelor Father
- Alan Rickman, versatile actor of innumerable memorable roles
- Dan Haggerty, actor best known for his role on the television series Grizzly Adams
- Andrew Smith, Butler University basketball hopeful
- René Angélil, who discovered and then married singer Celine Dionne
- Lawrence Phillips, promising NFL player caught up in violence
- Brian Bedford, Tony award-winning actor known for his productions of Shakespeare
- David Margulies, character actor best known for his role as the mayor in the original Ghostbusters movie
- Otis Clay, Blues Hall of Fame member and Grammy nominee
- Pete Huttlinger, Master guitarist known especially for his work with John Denver
- Daniel Dionne, brother of Celine Dionne, died two days after her husband
- Michael Galeota, actor best known for his role in the Disney Channel Original Series The Jersey
All those people, gone in the span of seven days. There were more, of course. Many died whose names are not so familiar to us. On Friday, a terrorist attack on a Burkina Faso hotel left at least 28 dead, including an American missionary. All around the world, in every hospital in every city, families gathered as loved ones, some old and suffering, some never really having a chance at life, moved on.
So much for a fairy tale with happy endings. This week seems to have gone out of its way to show us that there is no “happily ever after.” Even the lives that seem the most wonderful and glamorous, those who appear to have everything in the world going their way, still die.
What, then, shall we do when the fairy tale is over? When we have run out of tears to cry and are weary from mourning, how do we face this incredibly cruel world? Any good reader should know the answer to that question. When one fairy tale ends, you start another. Tragedy is the platform upon which the foundation of comedy arises. The ending of one story, or one set of stories, prepares us for the beginning of the next.
Yes, it is true that even the next story likely ends with its main character’s demise, but every story is worth the telling. There are lessons to be learned even in the most heart-breaking situations. We do not stop here. We keep going.
I have been distantly following the continuing saga of Cory and Joey Feek, as have millions of others. I’m not going to sit here anre pretend that I was ever a fan. I’m not big into contemporary country music, and until their lives took a tragic turn I’d not even heard of them. Now, it appears that Joey’s story is nearing its end. When it does, headlines will focus on the love of a mother for her daughter, and a husband for his wife, and many will share in their grief. What’s important is that we realize that there is a story that goes onward. Their daughter, Indiana, is just beginning her story, even as her mother’s is ending.
While it is easy to become emeshed in the stories of others, however, we must remember that we are the ones writing our own stories. While our tales may be entertwined with those of others, we are ultimately the authors of our own fates. Even in circumstances where we might not have control of when or how our story ends, we still decide through the way we live and the decisions we make whether our fairy tale is tragic or happy.
2016 seems to be getting off to a very rough start, but perhaps this is this universe telling us that we need to focus more on the future, not the past; that we should focus less on the lives lost and more on those still living. Not that we don’t remember those who have died, but we realize that their passing is but the end of a chapter, not the whole book. The fairy tale is not over. There is so much more to be written and it is up to you to do the writing.