“And they lived happily ever after.” What response do those words conjure in your soul? For the littlest children – and perhaps among the ever-diminishing number of older children whose home lives have been full of love and security – they evoke a pleasurable satisfaction. A natural sense of “this is right and this is the way the story should end.”
Adults of course know that little children are naïve. Some parents want their children to enjoy their fairy tale worlds as long as they can. Others want to disabuse their children of such notions early in an effort to prevent disappointment later on. Either way, we fundamentally know that the children are wrong. Layer upon layer of hard experience has taught us so. And so we hear the fairy tale “happy endings” with cynical amusement – or sadness, or even disgust.
And yet … and yet, something in them tugs on our hearts strings. Like a far-away melody, sweet and rich and compelling. In our ear for just a moment and then gone. Too lovely to ignore. Too sweet to be real. And now the baby is crying in her crib. Or the pot has boiled over on the stove. Or the memory of a hard conversation or a broken relationship or unpaid bills on the counter shatter any remnant of the spell that the melody had begun to weave. These are real. The melody was imaginary.
But still we can’t get it out of our minds. The uncanny, inescapable truth is that the crying baby, the soiled stove, the unpaid bills, the broken heart, make us want the music to be real not less, but more. If we do not utterly refuse to hear the music when it plays, the hard realities of our experience increase our longings rather than diminish them.
“Yes, yes, yes,” we may tell ourselves. “But we want all sorts of things to be true that are not true. When we were children, we wanted Santa to be real, and he is not. We wanted to be baseball players and dancers and singers and actors and we are not. We just need to get over it.”
But this longing is of an entirely different order. And there is no getting over it. Yes, there is nihilism. But the only consistent nihilists are either mad or dead. There is no getting over this longing. It is the secret that we carry in our hearts and can never fully suppress; the desire of which we cannot speak in the company of adults. We try to satisfy it with temporal experiences and material goods, only to find ourselves emptier and our hearts broken all the more.
When will we come to see that the children who believe in happy endings are right after all? “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). At Jesus’ word, I’ll take my stand with the children and against the scoffers any day. Oh, and by the way, not just with the children, but with Abraham and Moses and Rahab and Samuel and David and the prophets and countless others, “who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions….They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy….” (Heb. 11:33, 37, 38a). “They were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:16). The children are right and the music is real – and sweeter than we imagine.