Hiding Out in Eden: How Happily Ever Afters Can Rob You of Joy
Some of my friends jokingly call me the Disney Princess. Few can recite Disney movies as readily as I can (I also do a rather good Korg voice, if I do say so myself). I love fairy tales. I’m also a hopeless romantic.
When I was a young adult, I read Veronica Roth’s book Allegiant (the final instalment of her dystopian trilogy, which began with Divergent). If you’ve read that book (they never quite got around to making the movie version), then you’ll know how betrayed I felt by the ending. In the years that followed, I developed a bad habit of reading the last page of books to make sure that the main character(s), at least, survived the story.
Then, when I ruined one too many good books this way, I developed another bad habit: reading the plot summaries of books (or at least the reviews) to be sure that this was a story worth investing emotional energy in. I’m not sure why I thought this would spoil the plot any less; after many more years, I trained myself out of the habit, but the temptation to flick ahead a few pages is always there.
But why is it there? The answer is simple. I flick to the end to ease the awful anxiety I feel that the story will not end as I want it to (that is, perfectly). Something writers must always consider is reader satisfaction—because it is never enough to write a good story. People have to be satisfied with it, too. For readers like me, it can become a burning compulsion: why invest yourself emotionally in a story that might disappoint you? Why risk it when there are a million other perfect worlds you can inhabit?
When I was in high school, my history teacher made an interesting observation: when society is relatively untroubled (e.g., during periods of economic growth and relative prosperity), readers crave genres like dystopia, post-apocalyptic fiction, and horror. Their circumstances are stable enough to engage with stories that might not always end well. But when society is in a period of great change and instability (e.g., during a worldwide pandemic), then readers tend to crave books with humour, escapism (including fantasy), and romance.
Since COVID-19 entered our lives, I’ve seen the truth of this borne out in my online reading and writing groups: there are constant requests from readers looking for something light and easy and entertaining that ends well (even predictably). There’s no need to escape reality, of course, unless reality becomes something that needs escaping from.
The romance genre is often looked down upon for its prizing of happily-ever-afters and unrealistic relationships, and everybody agrees that Disney movies (and their characters) are not representative of real-life struggles. But we nonetheless crave what they offer, in some shape or form—and why? Why are we so obsessed with perfection, and why do we pursue it even when—especially when—everything about this world points to brokenness (and sometimes chaos)?
The author of the book of Ecclesiastes writes:
“[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
What does it mean for eternity to be set in the human heart?
I believe it means that we are made with a craving for the perfection of Eden—and, ultimately, for the time when humans lived in constant communion with their Creator. The sinful choices of Adam and Eve still send shockwaves through history; humanity is left not only with a nature inclined to rebel against God, but we are also imprinted with a desire for the things we lost in that first rebellion.
We hunger for eternity because eternity is what we were made for; we instinctively avoid all mentions of sickness, suffering, and death because in light of this desire for permanence and stability, they feel so wrong…and rightfully so, because they are wrong.
In his famous book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes:
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists... If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.
If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”
The problem is that we have become obsessed with the copy, the imitation, rather than the real thing. This is, of course, the main premise of one of my favourite movies, The Matrix, which was ideologically influenced by the work of French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard (eagle-eyed observers will notice that in the film, Neo hides his forbidden software in a hollowed-out copy of Baudrillard’s famous treatise, Simulacra and Simulation).
Our struggles with pornography and erotica, for example, are only a symptom of our tendency to chase after the echoes of God’s good design (in this case, for sex), rather than the original blueprint. Anyone who has battled an addiction to these kinds of things knows that they never truly satisfy; that while they promise fulfilment and perfection and pleasure, they are only ever a shadow of the real Eden, and as a result, they are about as fulfilling as Edmund's gift of Turkish delight from the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
(Some, of course, will deny that there even is a blueprint, but like the caldera of a volcano, the absence or even distortion of something is often an indication of what existed in the first place.)
So what do we do with this hunger for eternity?
Some will conclude that we should forget the present world altogether and prepare for our eternal destinies with dutiful smiles and monk-like ascetism. But I think Lewis is right when he warns of the dangers of this approach: just as it is problematic to live as if this world is the only hope of fulfilment and joy we have, it is equally misguided to ignore the obvious beauty and goodness (and frequent blessings) that are part of God’s creation. As Lewis says, the good things of this world are signposts that point to the kingdom to come. They are copies that give us a longing for the real. If you come across a plate in pieces on the floor, you can see (with a bit of work) a little of what it looked like when it was whole. And you can appreciate and praise God for his original design.
And that is, I think, one of the answers to our dilemma: it involves a bit of work. In the Old Testament, the Israelites had a problem with forgetfulness. They were barely out of Egypt—God having worked a series of mighty signs and incredible miracles, including parting the Red Sea—when they began complaining that God intended them ill (Exodus 16:1-3). This pattern repeats itself over and over, ad nauseam, until the coming of Jesus. Despite the instituting of festivals to remember what God had done for Israel and God’s instructions, relayed through Moses, to weave reminders of His promises into every aspect of life (Deuteronomy 11:18-21), the Israelites became increasingly forgetful and disgruntled with God.
The truth is that we are more like the Old Testament Israelites than we care to admit. We are chronically forgetful, and the modern epidemic of busyness only intensifies the problem. One of the most important insights from the field of neuroscience is that we are what we habitually do. Our rhythms of life—the things we spend time doing and the things we look forward to—shape our character, our headspace, and our mood. What we think and feel—what we believe—is shaped by our actions and habits, and vice versa. To cultivate gratitude, we must practice the custom of thanking God for what we have—even when we don’t feel grateful, or it seems that there really isn’t very much to be grateful about.
Love, as Corrie ten Boom reminds us, is a choice—but so is joy. During the worst phases of my battle with chronic illness, I was struck by a single realisation again and again: I could either spend time marinating myself in God’s promises and offers of hope (for this life and the one to come), or marinate in my own fear and despair. Of course, many times I chose the fear-and-despair route, but with time, and God’s grace, I began to see the futility of the well-trodden downward spiral. Many times, I have been rescued from fear and despair by choosing to remember what God has done for me in the past, what I have right now, and what He promises to do with my life.
So I want to ask you: how much do you think about Heaven? Do you think about it as a well-I’ll-enjoy-it-when-I-get-there-but-right-now-I-have-way-too-much-to-do sort of way? Kind of like those who say, "I'll sleep when I'm dead". Do you find that you are more comfortable with Martha's workload than Mary's stillness?
I remember once reading about J.I. Packer’s adopted habit of spending half an hour a day meditating on eternity. During the darkest part of my illness, I took up this same practice, and I was astonished at how quickly eternity—which had always felt so far away—suddenly seemed so much closer. The more time I spent thinking about Heaven, the more my own life and its troubles began to pale in comparison—the more they seemed short and temporary, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:17:
"For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
I've always baulked at these words. Light and momentary troubles, Paul? Have you seen how much I have to do? Do you know how much I have on my plate right now?
But Paul wrote these words as a great comfort—it is right and good to think about Heaven. It also makes sense of the pain of this world in a way that nothing else can. After all, a runner in a footrace might enjoy running and being active, but what they care about most is crossing the finish line. The finish line makes sense of everything—why they train, why they endure pain and discomfort and injury, and even why they picked this particular day and time to run. To forget any of that is to lose sight of what’s most important—not to mention, what’s most enjoyable.
You aren't selected for the Olympic 100m sprint solely because you like to run; you can run at home, and it will probably be far less expensive. You are selected, and you make a decision to sign up, because you have a particular destination in mind. You are thinking about crossing that finish line in front of a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). And that, I think, is what C.S. Lewis means when he talks about us being citizens of another country—or as Paul called us, foreigners and exiles (1 Peter 2:11), or, as Billy Graham once said, “just passing through”. This world is passing away (1 John 2:17). We know that. But do we really know it? Do we know it through what we do?
The only antidote to forgetfulness is—not surprisingly—remembering, and the key to remembering is making time to remember. A harried and busy life does a memory no favours; when it comes to eternity, it is the same.
So today, if you’re up to your neck in the troubles of this life, or if you feel as if all you’d like to do is to forget about them for a while, might I encourage you, first of all, to lean into your pain? Your discontent is not imaginary; it is very real. It is a symptom of your thirst for a world whose nature was imprinted on you before you were born, even as you were left with not the real thing but a copy—or, as Lewis calls it, a mirage. Don’t waste your time trying to find peace in those things. They are good things, certainly, and you are not sinful for wanting them. But memory is a fickle thing, and we are easily distracted.
So take the time today to think about Heaven. If you want something to get bigger, to fill your whole vision like an extreme close-up shot, you need to get closer to it. One man, Arthur Stace, spent his entire life just writing the word eternity—what does it mean to you?
What are you looking forward to in eternity? Are you in pain from a long illness or missing loved ones who have passed away? Do you feel in your bones, as you get older, the ephemeral nature of this world, and find in yourself desires nothing in this world can satisfy? Are you hungering to be in the presence of Jesus? Are you wanting to achieve fruit that lasts (John 15:16)?
What do you think Heaven will be like? Mentally push yourself beyond the stereotypical visions of angels, white clouds, cherubim, and St Peter standing guard at the gate. What will it be like, walking with your God each day as His child, His heir… His friend? (Of course, these are all things that we can do right now, because of Jesus and through the Holy Spirit, but I like to imagine what it will be like to see Him face to face.) What do you want to ask God? Think about this for a long moment…revel in this…marinate yourself in this. Read Revelation 21, that wonderful vision of the world-that-will-be.
What you may find is that as you enlarge your view of the future, this life shrinks in its immediacy, importance, and maybe even its pain. Your life’s priorities will begin to be reshuffled into the order they should be. Anxieties will fade as eternity edges nearer. The phrase “happily ever after” should take on a new, richer meaning, though I rather think it should be “joy ever after”.
We have that, friends—this day and that day. We know the end of the story, but knowing the end only increases our joy. While we’re in the now, let us be thinking some more of the then…when, one day, we will return to the new Eden, our true home—the only one worth having.