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Sep 07 2009

Happily Ever After and the Locus of Control

Alma Alexander has written about happy endings over at SF Novelists.

I don’t really believe in the happy ending. In my early reading, few of the old myths had them; when I graduated to fairy tales I tended to prefer Hans Christian Andersen’s dystopias than ache to be in Cinderella’s wedding party – I might have cried bitter tears at the fate of the Little Mermaid (the ORIGINAL Little Mermaid, not Disney’s red-haired sea princess with a chorus of singing sea slugs) but somehow I had more in common with her than I ever had with Sleeping Beauty. I mean, I might not have grown up with a spindle in my hand either, but I think I could be kind of trusted to see a damned sharp point if one came under my hand, and I would like to think (faery curses aside) that I would have the motherwit not to impale myself on one.

I don’t particularly agree with her about…well, about anything except that happy endings can be done badly. Happy endings do happen in real life. Happily ever after doesn’t mean no work, just not working alone or without hope or reward. Sometimes the cost of happiness really is paid up front.

What really caught my attention, though, were her feelings about Sleeping Beauty.

Both kind of fairy tale endings hinge on a sort of fate or destiny – Maleficent’s curse or the Little Mermaid’s desire to walk on dry land no matter what the cost – but the difference in my head between the Sleeping Beauty tale and that of the Little Mermaid is that Sleeping Beauty almost literally sleepwalks her way through her life (the curse is something that WILL HAPPEN, no matter what she does or thinks about it) and the Little Mermaid makes her own choices, lives with her own pain, and finally turns her back on the dearly-bought salvation that her sisters have paid for because it is not her OWN choice, her OWN destiny. One of these protagonists is in control of her own life. The other is not. I saw the difference.

This bothered me quite a lot, this preference for willful self-destruction over a free release being offered to a young woman who is suffering for her parents’ actions. Some of my reaction is a particular hatred for blaming the victim, this time for being passive in a situation in which she truly has no control. Some of it is that this fetishization of control has nasty consequences.

The most sure way to ensure control over what happens to you is to arrange a nice, quiet suicide where no one can find you until you’re dead. Failing that, the next most certain is to make lousy choices with known consequences. Good things will happen to you by accident occasionally, but there’s no surer way to get kicked out of wherever you live than to stop paying your rent or mortgage, no surer way to see your marriage destroyed than to walk away from it, no surer way to avoid getting an education than to refuse to study, no surer way to keep from being published than to refuse to write.

These things happen to some percentage of us anyway, because when it comes down to it, they are not under our control. Not completely. But they are much more under the control of those who engage in self-sabotage.

Not surprisingly, we see this in politics too. There is no issue so important that someone won’t come along to say they’re sitting on their hands because we’ll never get the outcome we really want. We saw it last year before the election. We see it right now in the people who want a public health insurance option but act as though the decision is up to Rahm Emanuel.

The fact is, defeatism (anticipation of the unhappy ending) just isn’t that reasonable. Bad things happen, but good things happen too. One hundred years ago, women couldn’t vote. Poll taxes were allowed. Interracial and same-sex marriages weren’t allowed in many places. We had a weak antitrust system, no formal national park system, no Interstate system, no Social Security, no Medicaid, no free school lunches, no Title IX, no Pell Grants, no VA, no education subsidies for the people who serve in the Armed Services.

Focusing on that unhappy ending means we are ignoring what we have accomplished–and losing sight of the power we have to accomplish more. We can’t control all of our environment, but every decision we make, every action we take has an effect on it. We can choose the more certain path of failure, or we can the risk to try to improve our lot. We can reach for that happy ending. Sometimes, we even get it.

And that is every bit as much a Truth as any presented in the most dismal literature.

2 comments

  1. 1
    D. C.

    Brought down to daily choices, one of my rules (and my kids know it well enough to beat me to it sometimes) is:"Give them a chance to do good."Don't be stupid about it, but don't get so hung up on the chance of rejection that you never give anyone a chance to say "yes." And before anyone asks, yes, that's one of the bitter lessons of growing up male.

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    It's one of the hardest things to learn as a writer, too. We want to be perfect, to eliminate that possibility of rejection, but that's absolutely not something we can do, except by never sending anything out in the first place. Slightly less personal than romantic rejection, but only slightly.

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