Our Stories Teach Us, “Don’t Give Up”

This piece will run in early May, 2024, as a newspaper op/ed.


Many a fairy tale ends with “and they lived happily ever after.” And not just fairy tales: there are tons of stories, myths, movies, etc. in which we end with the gratification of our heroes successfully achieving their goals.

In these difficult times, I have felt especially drawn to such narratives, with their wish-fulfilling endings, where

• the guy gets the girl,
• the good guy gets revenge on the bad guy who’d done him wrong,
• the Nobody of the beginning ends up a Somebody, famous for big achievements.

But the question arises: if this is about vicarious wish-fulfillment, why do we have to wait until the end for that gratification? Why, do our stories end with “happily ever after” rather than begin with all our “dreams come true”?
Consider: How would it feel if our movie started out with our protagonists having all their wishes already granted? (Happily married, loving family, successful career, in a world of peace, goodwill, general prosperity, and a vibrant cultural life.)

As soon as I imagine such a beginning, I realize I’d be quickly bored.

I would not feel the hero’s happiness, the way I do enjoyably participate in the joy of getting together at last with one’s beloved, the satisfaction of destroying a hateful enemy, the sense of pride in the achievements, fame and recognition of the character with whom I have been identifying as he/she traveled a path beset by many obstacles, challenges, and set-backs.

Apparently, I conclude, we humans have been wired to want to have a narrative experience in which 1) we vicariously face serious difficulties and 2) work our way successfully toward the feeling of fulfillment. The difficult path to get to happiness seems to be essential to the point of our taking that journey through the story.

Which leads to the question: Why would we be wired that way?

In an evolutionary perspective, the answer would take the form: “Those who were wired that way were more likely to get their DNA into the future than those who weren’t.”

And a little reflection suggests a reason why being wired that way might contribute to survival: the stories teach us not to give up, despite what would seem to be very long odds.

Our ancestors, over the countless generations, would of course have faced a great many difficulties. Many must have been the times when a realistic assessment of the chances of ultimately succeeding – or even, ultimately, of surviving – must have looked daunting.

Those who allowed themselves to be daunted – who faced such long odds they felt discouraged from even making the effort – would surely have failed. But once in a while, some of those who do try — even despite odds 100:1 against success or survival – will succeed. And only those who act on hope rather than resignation to failure will make it through.

So there’s the evolutionary pay-off. The idea of “don’t give up, despite the formidable obstacles” helps people keep going, and not surrender to the weight of the difficulties. Which helps them survive.

Which also means that it is advantageous for us to learn to envision the hopeful scenario before us in our lives. That’s what our stories – with their difficult paths leading to “happily ever after” endings – teach us.

• If our heroine is a mere understudy, we know that we who identify with her will soon rise to be the acclaimed star.

• Out of the millions who buy lottery tickets, the one our story presents us – as in the movie It Could Happen to You – is the one who buys the winning ticket.

• In the biopic – like of Thomas Edison – 10,000 failed attempts to invent the light bulb will just be the precursor to a history-making success.

• Although being sentenced to be a Roman galley slave was generally a death sentence, our hero Ben Hur will not only survive but will become a prince of Rome, and will avenge himself on the Roman who betrayed him.

• When we must endure, through our identification with Cinderella, her cruel exploitation by her stepmother and step-sisters, we are eventually rewarded by her rising far above them, becoming the bride of the handsome prince she met at the ball from which they’d sought to exclude her.

Rehearsing the experience of improbable success.

Evolution, I imagine, has instilled in us a motivation to create and to vicariously experience such scenarios. The repetitive experience of such rewarding scenarios – ultimately achieving success despite the difficulties – reinforces in us the willingness to strive to get through the difficulties of the moment, rather than yield to despair.

“Don’t give up without trying” is a message, I think, that evolution has inscribed in our hearts, and that the stories of our culture reinforce. There is always the hope of beating the odds.

It is because life is served by hope that we have so often heard the saying, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” And that “hope” appears in the Bible as so important a virtue. And that the Greek myth of Pandora depicts “Hope” as the one thing that remains to help humankind deal with all the troubles that have been loosed into the world.

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