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Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Happy Ending

“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
— Orson Welles

Such a great line. If anyone knew how to tell a story, the legendary director did.

Life, however, does not neatly and naturally subdivide itself into an introduction, three acts and a tidy conclusion. We do not script our entrance or our exit, and we exercise minimal control over events occurring in between.

And all of it is very much open to interpretation.

The story I tell about my experiences and the lessons I have learned will be vastly different from the story you might tell about me, or the story my own parents or children would tell about me. But no matter who tells the story and what spin they put on it, Welles was right: where you stop the story changes everything.

Stop Right There. I Wanna Know Right Now

Take King David, if you will. Stop the story right after he stands over Goliath’s fallen corpse holding up the Philistine’s head to rally the Israelite troops against their enemies and you have the ultimate underdog narrative, the stuff of a thousand novels and movies.

But the story doesn’t stop there, does it. The narrative rolls on through David’s ascension to the throne of a united kingdom of Israel, to the ark of the covenant being brought to Jerusalem and celebrated in the streets, to God’s blessing on David as he puts all Israel’s enemies to flight and wins battle after battle. Still a great underdog story — perhaps even a better one — assuming we just stop it there.

But we can’t. The story doesn’t. And it takes a dark turn.

Underdog and Big Dog

David numbering the fighting men of Israel and bringing a plague on the nation. David committing adultery with Bathsheba and conspiring to murder her husband. The curse of the sword that would never depart from David’s household because he (very momentarily and uncharacteristically) despised God.

Different story, isn’t it? How do we tell this one? Where’s our happy ending now? The drama has gotten a whole lot more ... what shall we say ... nuanced, perhaps? Soap-operatic? The good guy is a bad guy too. The underdog has become the Big Dog, and has demonstrated he wasn’t so great at it either.

More like life, we might say.

The Search for Timeless Truth

We all expend a great deal of mental and emotional effort assessing the various movements of our lives in the hope that some unequivocal and lasting meaning can be extracted for our own benefit and, if we are generous, perhaps even for the benefit of others. We may be looking for a narrative that is coherent, relatable and expresses timeless truth. Or perhaps our ambitions are not so lofty. We may be doing nothing more dignified and selfless than attempting to impose shape and form on what would otherwise appear to us as a series of random events. Either way, at every turn the human heart craves a viable story arc.

I am starting to believe this is, for the most part, a fool’s errand.

By the time your story is 50, or 60, or 80 years long, you can tell it fifty different ways depending on where you stop and start. You can draw fifty different lessons from it, of which far too few can be legitimately derived from all facts in evidence. The lesson that “family matters” is painfully subverted when your grandchildren abandon you to the old folk’s home. The lesson that “hard work pays off” looks awfully dubious after the car accident that leaves you unable to enjoy the fruit of your labours. The lesson that “love is the answer” seems suddenly trite and vacuous when all the love in the world didn’t change her mind about leaving you.

The whole concept of the happy ending depends on being able to stop your story at a good spot. Except my narrative is a car with brakes that don’t work.

What Doesn’t Get Uploaded

Writing ourselves little carefully-embroidered stories about our lives and serving them up to one another is comforting, I’m sure. Facebook exists to promote such fantasies. You can even load it up with pictures and video if you like. But ask yourself how many photos are passed over for uploading and how many anecdotes go untold (or are judiciously retold) because they’d give the lie to the pretty package online. Where’s the picture of me snarking at the mother-in-law or the wife screaming at the kids? Hmm. They seem to have gone missing.

But why contradict a perfectly good narrative, after all? So much better if we can manage the story to make it come out the way we’d like. It’s often the most accurate version of the story that doesn’t get uploaded.

Oh, don’t be discouraged. There’s lots of timeless truth out there. Objective reality exists, thank the Lord. Our lives DO have real meaning, and even from the fragments open to interpretation we can learn a great deal that is beneficial and instructive.

But timeless truth is not to be found in our own reconstructions and post-game analyses (which usually turn out to be mid-game analyses anyway; we’ve all turned off the football game right before that stunning fourth-quarter comeback once or twice).

Judgment Before the Time

Paul tells the story of a faithful steward (or so we presume since that steward is Paul). But what he says is true of any narrative, whether it’s the story of how deeply I loved my wife (though perhaps the evidence is actually quite shaky), how she submitted to and respected me (though she actually ran the show by managing me via passive aggression), how our family was godly and happy (if we disregard a couple of minor incidents like my sons drug bust and that stolen car) or how at work I was a mover and a shaker and “did it my way” (and my recent layoff had nothing to do with the abrasive personality they mentioned in human resources). Every story we tell is to be subjected to some very heavy editing indeed:
“Do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.”
It is the Lord who judges me, and amen to that.

The great Editor-In-Chief has yet to pronounce on the tales I weave. He may add an introduction or a conclusion I knew nothing about. Or my life may turn out to be one of those marvelously engaging ret-cons where a previously undisclosed snippet of relevant information is dropped in at the last moment that makes the audience gasp and completely reevaluate everything they’ve seen so far.

And, in the End ...

One day all our earthly stories will stop. I have every confidence that for those who truly love the Lord Jesus, the ending will be a very happy one indeed. Why not? If the very Son of God is in the business of writing letters on the tablets of human hearts with the Spirit of the living God, we can be sure every single story he chooses to tell the world will ultimately be a great one.

But they are HIS stories to interpret: not mine, not yours. Right now on our best day, we see half a paragraph, a few straggling sentences and maybe some odd letters in the middle of page 147. It would be imprudent and presumptuous (not to mention spectacularly inaccurate) for us to try to write a summary for the dust cover of the hardback from such scanty evidence of authorial intent.

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