One night while putting my kids to bed I opted to tell them a story, rather than read them a story. The difference is subtle. When I read them a story, I read the words on the page and show them the pictures illustrating the narration.
When I tell them a story, I put into my own words a given story, usually a fairy tale or bible story, from my own memory. No pictures illustrate the narration, but for some reason they love it. Maybe it is the sound effects I add or the fact that every time I tell a given story it is a little different from the last.
Whatever the case, they now prefer stories I tell more than stories out of a book. Just between you and me, I am beginning to run out of stories.
One of our favorites is “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” I admit, my version probably does not remain entirely faithful to the classic tale—Goldilocks eats pancakes or oatmeal, not porridge (What is porridge anyway?).
Yet, just like the original, in the end the Bear family discovers Goldilocks asleep in their home.
I honestly don’t know what is supposed to come after that, but to contemporize the story I used to say that the Bears call the police and have her arrested for trespassing. Perhaps that is not the best ending for small children, so now I narrate that the Bears unite Goldilocks with her parents who have been desperately looking for their daughter lost in the woods.
In order to capture the meaning of a story about a lost girl who finds safety and aid under the hospitality of strangers, I end the story with something like, “And Goldilocks returned home safely to her family who had a party because she was safe and well.”
Last week after concluding the story, my daughter asks me, “Did they not live happily ever after, Daddy?”
Now, anyone who lives with small children in the 21st century understands how my five-year-old daughter has been so indoctrinated with Disney fairy tales that she just assumes that every story is supposed to end with, “And they lived happily ever after.”
But, how should I answer that question?
Not wanting to verbalize all the thoughts that went through my head without thinking about the best answer, I answered her with a quick, “That’s not how this story ends, but she and her family were happy to be together again. Good night, I love you.”
Ever since she asked, I can’t get that question out of my head. I sense I may have missed one of those important moments, a moment where I have an opportunity to teach my child something about the way the world works. Or, about the true meaning of happiness. Or, about anything of value instead of just trying to get her to go to sleep as quickly as possible.
But now that I have had a few days to think about it, I have a couple of responses.
My first response to her question comes from my framework as a literature professor. I read and teach stories for a living, and anyone who has ever sat in my class knows none of the stories I teach end with “happily ever after.” In fact, most stories in any recognized academic canon of literature do not end happily at all. So, my first answer could have been, “No, a lot of stories don’t end with happily ever after. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
My next thought was much like my first. As a “grown-up” pushing 40 I am well aware of the way life goes. I considered answering with, “Nope. Life doesn’t work that way.”
Thankfully, I had the wherewithal not to verbalize either of those responses. I sense that a father should not pass on to his child such a cynical view of life at the ripe age of five.
The side of me that prevented me from giving my first two answers, though, is not simply ruled by common sense. It is that part of me most influenced by my faith.
While nowhere in the Bible does the phrase “happily ever after” appear, there are some important aspects of the Biblical narrative that embody the values of the fairytale ending. The fairytale ending is not merely about happiness; it reflects the simple hope that we can experience all of the best things life has to offer—love, well-being, health, personal success, and the full realization of our individual role in our community.
Therefore, what is the Garden of Eden if not the original plan for happily ever after? And what is heaven if not the ultimate realization of happily ever after? And, we can’t ignore the 28th verse of the 8th chapter of Romans, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV).
If we can say anything about the Biblical perspective on “happily ever after” it is this: God’s original intent and ultimate hope for mankind is to experience all of the perfection that he created for us. In understanding Romans 8:28 and knowing what our Father has in store for his followers in afterlife, we can say that God intends a “happily ever after” for all of us.
Furthermore, if I am completely honest with myself, I still believe in fairy tales.
Certainly, I am a cynical grown-up and a critical thinking academic. But, when I think of the joy and fulfillment I find in my marriage, in raising my children, in going to work everyday, and in the pursuit of my faith, I am convinced that if there is a “happily ever after,” then I am living it. And, I most definitely hope that what I model in my roles as father and husband demonstrates “happily ever after” to my children.
Yes, life does not work out how we plan. Yes, there is a lot of everyday-stuff-of-life that makes us unhappy. Yes, we all experience loss and regret. Yet, those things don’t prevent me from believing in God’s great plan for all of us, that he wants “happily ever after” for all of us.
So, next time my daughter asks me whether they lived “happily ever after” my answer will just be, “Yes, they did.”