As a ten-year-old, I was something of a bookworm. I even read those “choose your own adventure” books you could only get at the book fair. The idea of “choose your own adventure” books is that the reader assumes the role of the main character and makes decisions that determine the plot and outcome of the story. You decide to take the door on the left, turn to page 253. You decide to take the door on the right, turn to page 13. Each decision results in a different chapter, a different set of consequences.
Instead of following the directions like a good little reader, I’d always get impatient and flip through to the different endings at the back of the book, trying to avoid the path that had me being abducted by aliens and trying to find the one that ended with me saving the world.
It’s natural to be drawn toward happy endings. A happy ending means that the good guys won, that the right people found each other and that everything turned out okay. It’s a pretty nice philosophy, one typically associated with fairy tales and Disney movies, Prince Charmings and perfect hair.
To some degree, we still model our lives after these childhood tales, letting the archetypal “happy ending” serve as our ultimate goal.
Consider the contrary. We are challenged by “unhappy” endings because it seems as if they invalidate everything else. They frustrate, disappoint and annoy us because they refuse to give us the satisfaction of an easy, comfortable conclusion. They make us seem silly for believing in happy endings at all. Even so, sometimes endings that are not traditionally happy are best because they are more realistic and ultimately more relatable. If we can embrace the emotional ambiguity and find meaning and beauty in non-traditional endings, then maybe we can find meaning and beauty in real life, too.
Realism in art also demonstrates essentially why “choose your own adventure” books are so appealing. The second person point of view keeps you, as both the reader and the main character, invested in the story and excited about what is going to happen next. While the adventures themselves are often fantastical, the format of the books trace a realistic life trajectory: Life as a series of causes and effects, dictated by the opportunities that we take and the choices that we make.
The books feature a combination of logic and randomness, linear and non-linear paths that account for expected consequences as well as surprises. If you go into the house, you’ll find a dinner party. If you don’t go into the house, you’ll walk into a mob of zombie scientists. While I temporarily bought into the interactive literary device, the biggest problem I had with “choose your own adventure” books is that there was often only one “happy ending.” All of the other endings involved being buried alive or poisoned by evil monkeys. There were no other options, no in betweens. The books are a weird combination of personal agency and predestination, making you feel like you were in control by giving you options, but at the same time knowing that each option has a finite number of paths and outcomes connected to it. I liked being able to pick what to do, but I didn’t like my proverbial life to depend on it.
The ability to choose comes with the responsibility to make the “right” choice. In real life, the amount of pressure we put on ourselves to make the “right” decisions makes everything seem black and white, make it or break it. Job A versus Job B, Bio versus English, Billy versus Bobby, happiness versus unhappiness. As if there were only one life that could possibly lead to a happy ending.
We’re all perpetually flipping to the back of the book, trying to plan the rest of our lives and predetermine our happy endings. But no matter how realistic, books and movies are still just stories, with defined and constructed beginnings, middles and ends. Life, on the other hand, is truly a continuum in which “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
Could one decision make or break the rest of our lives? Is there only one happy ending for each of us? If you could flip through life to a guaranteed happy ending, would you?
Paolo Coelho says it best in The Alchemist: “making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really driving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.”
There isn’t just one path to glory, or even one singular glory. The mixed-up files of all of our choices may lead to endings that we can’t just flip a few pages and read ahead to. It’s this undying potential and uncertainty about the next chapter that makes life both exciting and terrifying.
And as much as I love fairy tales and happy endings, maybe we don’t need to define “happy” by “happily ever after.” Maybe we don’t want a Prince Charming. Maybe we would be better off being abducted by aliens. Maybe we have no idea know what our happy endings would even be. It’s nice to know what the next chapter holds, but in most cases, flipping through to the back of the book just ends up ruining the story.