A few weeks ago, Mike and I went to see the musical “Into the Woods” at the Kennedy Center. The talented troupe of actors put on a very entertaining performance. The play intertwines several popular fairytales but pushes the endings beyond “happily ever after.” In the end, tragedy strikes nearly every tale. Prince Charming cheats on Cinderella, Rapunzel is trampled to death by a giant, and many other misfortunes befall. It seemed that the main purpose of the show was to convince its audience that “happily ever after” does not really exist. It left me with a sense of dread and an uneasy feeling that relationships can’t be trusted and every person must look out for herself/himself to have some sense of satisfaction “in the end.” In a way, “Into the Woods” was spot on. When fairytales conclude with a wedding and “happily ever after,” they leave out the ups and downs that life will inevitably bring.
The musical depicts this realistic aspect of life, but reacts with a cynical warning to mistrust romance, marriage, and relationships. With so many millennials putting off marriage, it seems that this cynicism is pervading culture. In response to divorce, adultery, and the devaluing of sex, many young adults seem to have concluded that the safest bet is a life without permanent commitment. After all, if Prince Charming couldn’t even stay captivated by Cinderella, how can any of us expect a spouse to be faithful? A life based in autonomy, a life based in “personal freedom,” perhaps that life is the only one with a chance at “happily ever after.”
But this reaction to the reality that relationships are hard leaves no room for true fulfillment. Pope Saint John Paul II once said that “Man cannot find himself except through a sincere gift of self.” So a life lived for oneself is a life devoid of true meaning and certainly not one that leads to lasting happiness. Marriage may not lead to “happily ever after.” Entering “into the woods” of life is a real challenge. But marriage and self-gift bring the promise of something much more meaningful. A life poured out for the sake of others holds the promise of joyfully ever after. Joy, not always happiness, is the reason that people should not fear to enter into marriage or whichever vocation to which they are called.
Joy is something rooted much deeper than happiness. Happiness is based on emotion, and emotions can change with the wind. So of course, “happily ever after” is an impossible feat. There will be moments in every marriage that are far from happy and in these moments, married couples can attain true joy. According to the book Choose Joy by Kay Warren, “Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be all right, and the determined choice to praise God in all things.” I like to think of this joy as something that is rooted deep down in our souls. While happiness is surface level and fickle, joy is an inner reality that no bad situation can shake. Living a joyful life is a choice – it is an act of the will. Even in the midst of trial, betrayal, miscommunication (whatever life throws at a couple) they can choose to cultivate and live joy in their marriage. This joy is a Fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is a manifestation of the Spirit’s work in our lives and comes only through a life of faith. It is only through a relationship with Jesus Christ that we can experience true and lasting joy. We can’t look to any other person (whether a girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, friend, or child) to fulfil that role, because they simply can’t. Only the Perfect and Everlasting One can give perfect and everlasting joy. When our relationship with Christ is solid, we can see our spouse and other in relationships in the proper context – as manifestations of Christ’s love which add to our life of joy.
Let me give you an example. Over Christmas, all of my family caught the dreaded stomach bug. It was a brutal. It was the exact opposite of happy. For six days and nights, this gruesome virus worked its way through all five of us. As usually happens when we get sick, Mike got sick last and was sick for the least amount of time; which left Mike as the main caretaker for the rest of us. Nobody likes to clean up vomit and diarrhea from the floor, toilet, sheets, carpet, children time and again; and certainly no one enjoys doing so during the Christmas season with extended family. Mike was tired, frustrated, and covered in yuck. And yet, in the midst of all the yuck, Mike was a steady conduit of joy. He was a gentle and patient father to our suffering little ones and a compassionate and selfless husband to me, his bride. He cultivated that inner joy through his sincere gift of self. In spite of his unhappiness, Mike entered into the promise of joyfully ever after. In pouring himself out for his family, he became even more of the holy husband and father he is called to be.
How about an even more heart-wrenching example? Right now, a little 19 month old girl (providentially) named Joy is fighting for her life. She had an accident in the pool over Christmas and has been in the hospital ever since. Her family lives in Florida, and the accident happened in Arizona. She has four older siblings, and her parents are trying to balance care for all of their children. Not a situation pictured in the “happily ever after” fairytale ending. But as I read and watch her parent’s updates and videos of Joy, I am overwhelmed by the joy radiating from that hospital room. Priests have said Mass by her bedside; friends and strangers who have heard her story are praying for her all over the country; she is showing signs of improvement; her parents and little Joy herself are witnesses to the joy found in a life of faith. A joy that no suffering can uproot.
So I’d encourage young people considering marriage, engaged couples, newlyweds, (well, everyone really,) it is true, we must not be fooled by the over-romanticized notion of “happily ever after.” We can’t expect to be swept off our feet daily in a whirlwind of happy, wedded bliss. But also, we mustn’t settle for the lie of cynicism and mistrust. Don’t be afraid to open your heart to another – not with the expectation that they will fulfill you (because only Christ can) and not with the expectation that you will always be happy; but with the knowledge that through a sincere gift of self, you can live joyfully ever after.
As Pope Francis said to young people: "[The world will] say that it is not worth making a life-long commitment, making a definitive decision, ‘forever’, because we do not know what tomorrow will bring. I ask you, instead, to be revolutionaries, I ask you to swim against the tide; yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love. I have confidence in you and I pray for you. Have the courage to swim against the tide. And also, have the courage to be happy.” (Read as, “have the courage to be full of joy!”)