I have learned something about getting on with life. There’s no easy way to do it, and there’s no good time to do it. What’s more, there is absolutely no pain-free way to do it either. Hollywood has played a bigger role in our view of building a life than any of us would have imagined, I think. I think that Disney has most likely played an even bigger role. There are no absolute happy endings. Pain will always be mixed with happiness. These Disney-efied enhanced versions of reality are constructed to trade on our hope so that we will spend money to escape our own less than ideal realities. I sound cynical, but I’m really not. I am and have always been a hopeful realist.
I wonder, however, where people get some of their ideas. Why do people believe that running to the side of a life-long abusive parent as she lay dying will result in a miraculous reconciliation? Where does that idea originate? It’s magical thinking. A true personality change is not likely to occur in the last twenty minutes of a person’s life even as death looms. Insisting that the victim of years of abuse be the one to build that bridge isn’t right either. And yet, we see scenarios like these on the silver screen, don’t we? An adult child of some kind of abuse is weeping at the bedside of a dying parent. The parent is resistant to reconciliation, hardened from a life of bad choices. The adult child reaches out once again, “But I love you! Don’t you know that?” The parent’s lips quiver. Finally, in their last moments the dying parent utters, “I know. I’m sorry. I’ve always loved you…I just…couldn’t be what you needed. I’m really sorry.” End scene.
These scenes find their way into our subconscious, and, when bad things happen to us, we come to expect the happy ending. Where’s my Hollywood ending? Where’s Prince Charming? When will my horrible stepmother be forced out of my life by my fairy godmother? In fact, where is my fairy godmother?
Why am I suffering so much? What did I do wrong?
And then the stage is set for magical thinking. What is magical thinking? Essentially, magical thinking is the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which cannot be justified by reason and observation. I see a lot of magical thinking in religious environments. For example, I knew a woman whose car suddenly broke down. It was an old car and needed replacing. As her car was being towed to the repair shop, she cried, “I must not have given enough in the offering plate last Sunday.” She correlated her own perceived lack of generosity with her offerings at church with her car breaking down. God was, therefore, punishing her. That’s magical thinking.
Another example of magical thinking is when a woman is blamed for her own rape based solely upon what she is wearing or, even better, due to her sexual history. Her accusers are correlating her choice in skirt or even her past sexual partners with an attacker’s will to hurt her. One has nothing to do with the other, but these are correlations made all the time.
I have seen magical thinking at work when Christians wear crosses and correlate the wearing of that cross with perceived favor in daily experiences: “I got such a good parking space downtown! Always wear your cross! God blesses you in the best ways!” Another example of this is seen after tragic natural disasters. One house was skipped by a devastating tornado. Amid hundreds of destroyed domiciles, the owners of the “spared” home are standing on their roof holding a sign that reads, “Thank you, God, for saving us!” So, God favored only one house amidst hundreds? The “Angel of Death” passed over that community, and only one family was spared? This is magical thinking.
Magical thinking works for humans because it’s much more comfortable to believe that your fate is somehow determined than that you’re a member of a group of intelligent beings who 1) are responsible for your actions and 2) chaos exists, and it affects all of us regardless of our faith or depth of character.
This is why the Disney-ification of important life experiences such as falling in love, coming of age, and childhood is so potent. It reinforces our tendencies toward magical thinking rather than personal responsibility. Let’s be honest. Who wants to see that movie?
What if there are no Happy Ever Afters? That has to sink in for a moment. What if, however, we were meant for something better than Hollywood or Disney’s idea of happiness? That’s a better question.
What does it really mean to be happy? This, to me, is a far better place to start. If we look at the icons of our girlish fantasies, what might we find? Cinderella found her prince, and she was taken to the castle. In reality, a princess has few choices. She’ll live in a different sort of prison bound by allegiances, duty, and tradition. Snow White ended up the same way. In the Ivory Tower with the prince. In fact, many of the stars of our beloved fairy tales were princesses, but to be a princess is to be bound. Who really wants that job? You belong to the State. You are never really yours again. Your uterus will never be yours again. That is for certain. Your primary job is to carry on the bloodline.
What about the modern fairy tale “Pretty Woman”, a film I personally love? Again, how might that story continue? You know that she’ll end up in therapy, and he’ll have to go, too. You can’t just walk away from a life of prostitution and abuse and simply call it good.
What I’m trying to say here, however awkwardly, is that there is no easy road no matter how beautiful or promising it all looks in the beginning. Fairy tales are not real, and magical thinking gets us nowhere. In religious environments, it can lead to shaming and blaming, and it alienates vulnerable people who need to be welcomed in to the fold. In other spheres of life, it prevents us from taking action. We simply say things like, “It will get better.” How? How does anything get better without doing something? “Well, you know, time.” Time? How does time do anything? It simply passes while we stay the same. Attributing meaning or power to time is, once again, magical thinking. Time does not heal much. It does, however, give us opportunities to take steps towards achieving a goal whatever goal that might be.
I know something for certain. Nothing gets better without our own diligent efforts. We are fully responsible for ourselves. We create our happiness. In both Judaism and Christianity, one of the core beliefs is that we are created in the image of God. Our introduction to God in the entirety of our sacred texts, the Bible, is as Creator. We share in that nature. We are creators. We create our words by speaking them into existence. We create our inner landscape and climate by creating belief in the thoughts that ebb and flow in our minds. We create the atmosphere in our homes and relationships by creating the attitudes that emerge from within us. We are creators all the time. We create with every choice we make. This is the path forward even if we are still carrying our pain.
It may feel like a blessing and a curse, but it is our responsibility as humans to learn how to do this so that we can ultimately experience the freedom–and happiness–for which we were made.
Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.
Martin Luther King, Jr.