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“I Deserve a Happy Ending”

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 humanThey 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.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ernie #

    success is getting what we want – happiness is wanting what we get

    (maybe that’s too simplistic)

    March 20, 2012
    • I’m not sure if it’s too simplistic… Perhaps it speaks to the fact that we are active participants in, not merely passive receivers of our happy endings.

      March 21, 2012
  2. Ken #

    This is a beautiful posting. I am reluctant to even touch it, it is so nice.

    Gift and grace: I think we do find these in life, or many of us do, whether from nature or God.

    “Flabbergasted acceptance of a sheer, undeserved, unexpected, and delightful gifts” is connected with wonder. The things given fills us with wonder.

    I believe that the centuries of interpretation of the Bible as depicting a deservedness of death, and of certain great Biblical catastrophes, have not quite captured what is expressed in the whole of scripture. I don’t think that even Paul’s words, or the many other instances in which the notion of wrath is addressed, mean literally what they say. With you, I believe that the word “deserve,” whether for the good or bad, seems to not quite fit the Bible the way it has been understood for so long. So I can say that I don’t believe the Bible actually says that we deserve death. And outside of the Bible, I don’t believe we deserve life or death either. I am with Dawkins on that, although, in that quote about pitiless indifference, I think he mischaracterized the Darwinian universe. Darwin wrote that nature cares for each specie that she tends. It was a metaphorical expression, not to be taken quite literally, or as a literal personification of nature, and yet it describes something in nature that is analogous to grace, to something kind and given in the order, or disorder, of things.

    I think this givenness is more suggestive, ultimately, than our desire for life, although I am not sure it suggests God in a supernatural way. It may instead suggest that we are part of something beautiful and kind. It may suggest, at least metaphorically, cosmic desire in the universe, of desire that begets grace.

    We confess in different ways theologically, you and me, but on the grace found in life, and in scripture, we do indeed agree. It fills us both with wonder.

    March 20, 2012
    • Thank you, Ken. I appreciate your addition of the word “wonder” here. It, too, is a word that speaks of something that is not (and cannot be) owed to us. It can only be received with gratitude.

      March 21, 2012
  3. Brian C. #

    I recall on the news several years ago, a high ranking civil servant in the federal gov’t was dismissed from his job. He felt strongly he was owed certain things from his contract, regardless of his culpability. At a press conference he stated, “I am entitled to my entitlements.” And he said it with a straight face. Apologies if I’ve told this story before.

    March 22, 2012
    • That is just the type of measured, sensible, and coherent response I would expect from a politician :).

      March 22, 2012
  4. “Gift…and grace…point us to something better than we can imagine.” Nicely said – this will stay with me a while.

    March 26, 2012
  5. Thank you, Ryan… I was searching for answers, today, on whether or not we, as Christians, can say we “deserve” anything … your points about entitlement, vs gifts & grace, are perfect. Just what I needed. Thank you!

    December 28, 2017
    • Thanks very kindly, Jenn.

      December 29, 2017
  6. Melanie #

    I agree that “deserve” and “happy” are probably not good word choices for believers. I’m not sure that a follower of Christ who has been faithful and persevered through a great deal suffering should conclude they are likely to just continue endlessly suffering because they are undeserving of anything else. I think of Hebrews 12 where we are told to “endure hardship as discipline”. Then it says “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” I am loved enough to be disciplined and if happy is not spiritual enough of a word then I am glad/joyful to be up to my neck in the harvest field of what He has promised would result from accepting, from a loving Father, times so painful I thought I might go insane. It’s possible to get so focused on the wrapping paper of pain that we forget that this gift is presented by a loving Father who has hidden something wonderful inside. Keep persevering through every layer of that paper because there is a happy ending inside. Expect it! I think the entitled person has bought the Western churches cultural lie that praying some sort of prescribed prayer is for them a free pass out of all things “hellish” here on earth. The true believer prefers fruit over ease. His happy ending is like Joseph’s “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering!” Thanks for your thought provoking post.

    December 29, 2017
    • Thanks for your comment, Melanie. I like how you put this:

      “I am loved enough to be disciplined and if happy is not spiritual enough of a word then I am glad/joyful to be up to my neck in the harvest field of what He has promised.”

      December 29, 2017

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