"I deserve a happy ending"

March 23, 2012

Occasionally, a word or a phrase
encountered in everyday discourse will jump out and lodge itself in my
brain for the rest of the day—or at least until I blog about it!  This
morning, I was listening to a radio program discussing a certain person
who had been the victim of some terrible crimes, the unlikelihood of
“justice” being done in this case, the effects this was having upon
them, etc, etc.  It was an interview that spoke of sadness and regret,
anger and pain.  Near the end, the topic turned to the uncertainty of
what lay ahead for this person who had been victimized in a variety of
ways.  He wasn’t sure about specific next steps, but he were certain of
one thing: “I deserve a happy ending.”

It’s an interesting idea—that this person, or anyone else, deserves a
happy ending.  One should always be wary, I suppose, of subjecting any
singular, isolated statement to overly rigorous analysis, but this
little phrase has me thinking today.  Is this statement simply a
reflection of an individual’s psychological state, with a bit of urgency
tacked on?  Is it just another way of saying “I hope” for a happy
ending or “I would really like” a happy ending?  Is the word “deserve”
substituted to focus attention upon horrors already been endured—as if
life were some kind of karmic calculation whereby enduring x amount of hardship means that y amount
of goodness or pleasure is due?  Are we in the realm of psychology or
ontology here—does “I deserve a happy ending” merely reflect our own
wishful projections or does it point to something objectively real about
the nature and destiny of humanity and the cosmos?

The Bible, of course, has the odd thing to say about what we “deserve,” and it’s not exactly pleasant reading.  What we deserve, according to the Apostle Paul and others, is death.  We are “by nature objects of wrath,” according to Ephesians 2.  Objects of wrath.  By nature—simply
because of who/what we are as sinners who have always chosen self over
God.  Strong words about what we deserve.  Of course, this isn’t all that
the Bible has to say on the matter (thank God!), but the idea that to
whatever extent we “deserve” anything from God or the world, it is
anything but a happy ending seems like a fairly inescapable conclusion
from Scripture.

Come to think of it, though, there are few religious traditions or philosophies that claim we deserve a happy ending. Salvation, enlightenment, nirvana, escape, heaven, etc are rarely (if ever) described as deserved.
 It’s difficult to squeeze anything like a “deserved” happy ending
from a strictly materialistic worldview, either.  We are “owed”
precisely nothing by a universe characterized by, as Richard Dawkins has
so cheerfully put it, “blind, pitiless indifference.”  Our endings are
the same as our beginnings and middles—purposeless and amoral.  Whatever
our worldview, it seems, we are not owed a happy ending.

And
yet, we can’t seem to shake this idea that there is goodness in our
future.  I continue to meander my way through Eric Weiner’s Man Seeks God,
and it has been fascinating to observe the author’s approach to
religion and spirituality.  Weiner’s “flirtations” with the divine are
undertaken in the hopes of finding this elusive “happy ending.”  He
spends time with whirling dervishes in Turkey, Buddhist monks in India,
Franciscans in the Bronx, and many more, all in the hopes of outrunning
his despair and apathy, unlocking the “key” to a fulfilled existence, a
happy ending.  The assumption throughout is that the answer to the
riddle is out there—that happy endings are at least available, if not obligatory.

Weiner’s is hardly a unique pursuit, nor
are the desires and assumptions that animate it.  The pursuit of happy
endings—from the mundane and the everyday to the eschatological and
existential—has animated human thinking and acting and believing and
behaving across cultures and throughout history.  Of course, the
presence of a widely held human desire/assumption about the world does
not thereby mean that said desire/assumption is true.  Desire
is not an argument for the existence of God or of happy endings.  But
desire is, at the very least, suggestive.  It is worth paying attention
to.

So, if we can’t say we deserve happy endings, what can
we say?  What, if anything, does this desire and the unspoken
assumptions behind it point to?  Well, from a Christian perspective, I
think a good place to start is with grace.  Salvation is described
throughout Scripture not as something we are owed by virtue of
existence, but as a gift of God.  Perhaps there is something worth
pausing over here.  The word “deserve” comes from the language of
entitlement.  It is transactional language, the language of commerce and
business, the language of rights and duties.  Words like “gift” and
“grace,” on the other hand, have a different grammar.  They somehow seem
more personal, more pregnant with possibility, surprise, and joy, more human They point, I think, to something that is better than we can imagine.

And maybe this is as it should
be when we’re talking about happy endings.  Because, at least for me,
the happiest temporal endings I have experienced have not been the
collection of debts owed but the flabbergasted acceptance of a sheer,
undeserved, unexpected, and delightful gifts.

Originally posted at Rumblings