A Theological Lesson from Once Upon a Time: “Happily Ever After” as a Heuristic for Heaven and Hatred

Yesterday, while watching Once Upon a Time, I made an interesting realization. The realization came as I saw the interaction between two sets of characters on the show. That interaction is captured particularly well in one exchange between one of the show’s main “good” characters, Snow White, and the show’s main antagonist: The Evil Queen (I don’t even know her real name.)

A little background for the dialogue: the Queen has brought a curse upon all of the fairytale characters (including Snow) living in some “enchanted forest.” Just as she is about to kick the curse off or whatever, the following quick exchange occurs:

Snow: Why are you doing this?

Queen: Because this is my happy ending.

“My happy ending” as opposed to your happy ending. That’s it right there. That disparity is the source of every narrative tension in every television show, film, play, novel, etc. And it sure seems like its the source of conflict in real life. We are all a bunch of fairytale characters thrown into and entangled by a web of incompatible plans for “happily ever after.”

That observation highlights something interesting: the motives for many of our actions are basically the same. Is there really a reason to call the Queen “evil?” Her intentions are essentially the same as the “good” characters in the show: she wants happiness. I suppose the answer to this question depends both on what we mean when we say “evil” and on whether moral judgments are made solely on the basis on motives (which is doubtful).

Regardless, I think that this is a helpful thing to keep in mind if I’m serious about loving my enemies. An enemy, on the observation that I’ve been making through this fictional dialogue, is simply one who has a picture of happiness that is incompatible with my picture. I suspect that recognizing that the motives underlying my enemy’s actions are not so different from my own will help me understand them better, and understanding your enemies, as far as I can tell, is a step in the right direction towards loving them.

But what can be said about love with the current lens? Love, it seems, is often a disentangling and unification of the web of disparate happily ever afters. But this understanding rests on a seemingly dubious psychological premise: that Love universally has the effect of raising another persons awareness of the value of others, which, in turn, brings them to the point of valuing the values of others.

Actually, its not quite right to say that this understanding rests on the aforementioned premise. Rather, it should be said that the motive one might have for loving would rest on some sort of claim like the one spelled out above. There is, however, another way to talk about the motive for loving, and this way of talking is similar to the way that I talked about my graduate school anxieties.

What I mean by all of that is this: there are (at least) two responses to ambiguity regarding the actualization of certain goals in life. One response, call it an epistemic response, is to a) comfort oneself by searching for evidence that suggests that a certain potentiality will become actual or b) give up the search for evidence but have (an epistemic kind of) faith that things will turn out in your favor regardless of the lack of evidence. There is a second response that we could call an axiological response. (Again this response corresponds to the way of talking about my grad school nonsense.) The response is axiological because it points to the the value of the potentially unrealizable potentiality.

With the second response spelled out, I’m now in a position to say something about the motive for loving others in spite of any evidence that our efforts will be futile: the value, the beauty, the goodness of bringing about a world in which all of our happily ever afters are harmonized is so great that it is worth all of our efforts; it is worth our life and our death.

This disentangled web of happily ever afters is, I think, identical with the kingdom of God.

…Or maybe this is all nonsense.

(A parenthetical introspective note: this marks a shift in my thinking about why I am a Lover, a Christian. Before, I used to say that my categorical imperative to love others was a life-long experiment. I used to say that I trusted that loving others would always turn out to have the best consequences. I was thinking along the first response to life’s ambiguity. Now, I think, I’m moving towards the second response. I wonder if there’s a relationship between what I’ve called the “axiological response to live’s ambiguity” and faith. I think this verse might point to said relationship.)

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