I asked for guest voices and today I am pleased to introduce a voice that with grace will become a regular: Jill Bergen.
Jill Elizabeth Bergen is a writer and educator with nearly twenty years of experience in classical education. She is a member of the Torrey Honors Institute and holds an MA in Education with an emphasis in Philosophy of Education. She and her husband, Bradley, reside in Southern California.
Ms. Bergen writes on the not-so-happy ending:
A friend once complained to me for recommending Charlotte Bronte’s Villette to her, commenting that it was too depressing, and she wished Bronte had given it a happy ending like Jane Eyre. I didn’t tell her that was precisely why I preferred Villette: I love a good, sad story that doesn’t leave the reader with a tidied-up happy ending. My friend’s reaction, it seems, is indicative of the majority opinion. Perhaps with subconscious echos of Plato’s suspicions of tragedy in their minds, most people tend to prefer stories that end with at least some measure of explicit hope. More than a few times I’ve heard the argument that since life “ends” happily (not through death, but eventual resurrection), stories should echo that. It is true that stories teach us important truths: they shape our beliefs and ideas of humanity, of our world and the cosmos, and of God; in short, stories (both true and fictional) helps us to become more human. So, if it is true that life ends in happiness, must our stories not also end well? As compelling as that idea is, it is not the case, because not all stories have to have the ultimate end, just an end.
Before ending well, our lives are often sad and painful, and no one alive has yet attained their final happy ending. Jesus, in his life on earth, spent quite a bit of time suffering, including his three days on the cross, in hell, and in the grave. Yet Christians take as their fundamental belief that Jesus did not stay in his tomb but rose on Easter morning. This is surely a story that ends well. Curiously, though, Christendom has traditionally celebrated Good Friday and Holy Saturday with great solemnity, and the entirety of the week before Easter is spent embracing the sorrow that lead up to the crucifixion. The Church has long used that time to reflect upon important truths about ourselves and the world: our own sinfulness, the necessity of the incarnation and death of Jesus, and the desolating sadness of our very God dying upon a cross.
Yes, our solemn celebration of Holy Week ends with a joyous celebration of Easter. However, to only celebrate Easter, we miss the many lessons and truths of the week leading up to it. The same is true with stories. Sometimes, by providing a happy resolution to an otherwise somber story, we overlook the lessons that pain and imperfection can teach us about ourselves and our world; we tend to forget sadness in the light of a happy ending. If stories can tell us true things, surely some of that knowledge comes from wrestling with sorrow and tragedy; if God allows pain, we can know truth from that pain.
Sad stories are like sitting at the cross on Good Friday, and outside the tomb on Holy Saturday. One day we will get to the happy Sunday morning, but we too often gloss over truths we do not enjoy to get to the ones we do. In doing so, we forget a substantial portion of life. Happy stories are there to remind us of Sunday morning, but a good sad story will help us not to forget harder truths that make us more fully human.