I love Disney’s latest rendition of Cinderella. Ella is a kind, imaginative young woman. Though she experiences trauma and even abuse, she learns to be strong without becoming hardened. She does the right thing and it pays off in the end when she marries Kit.
I want to be Ella. It’s stories like hers that inspire me to hold fast to my principles, carry myself like a princess, and treat everyone I encounter with charity (unless everyone includes Donald Trump, who doesn’t get any charity from me).
But stories like Cinderella taught me more than just to have courage, be kind, and look attractive. They subtly reinforced narratives like this one: If you do what’s right, everything will be ok in the end. Life might be hard for a while, but once you get past that key crisis point, you can expect everything to wrap up in a beautiful and satisfying conclusion. Between Cinderella, Regency novels and sermons about Christian Hedonism, I definitely internalized this narrative.
I remember being incredibly confused the first time I experienced significant relational brokenness at college. I had acted thoughtfully, out of kindness, in keeping with the counsel I’d received. Nothing could go wrong, right? Go ahead and laugh at freshman me.
When the flames died down and the smoke cleared, I was convinced I must have acted wrongly. I had no narrative where acting rightly resulted in pain. Pain for me. Pain for others.
If I could send a message back in time to freshman me, here are a few things I’d like to say:
1) Sometimes it’s just not clear what the right thing is.
You can pray and go to counseling and ask for advice but the right thing can be as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel. (They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere…) You stumble around looking for the right thing in the dark and you don’t always know if you’ve found it. Figuring out how to love God and people is way more complicated than a recipe or a rulebook. Always try, but don’t expect it to be clear.
2) Sometimes you do the right thing and everything blows up. Literally everything.
When the explosion is still echoing in your ears and all you can see is relational wreckage, it doesn’t mean you did the wrong thing.
(Of course, sometimes you did do the wrong thing and then you have to say sorry. But we’re talking about when you did the right thing.)
Job did all the right things and he lost all his children. Sure, he got more children later, but I bet he still cried when he remembered the ones that died. Able did the right thing and his brother murdered him for it. Stephen did the right thing and he got stoned. Jesus did the right thing and he got crucified. (Are you sensing a pattern here??) Doing the right thing doesn’t mean that the people you’re trying to love will like you. It doesn’t mean you’ll get a positive pre-death resolution.
I know I sound kind of extreme, but I’m just trying to make a point: doing the right thing is a lot less connected to happy endings than you might think if you get your philosophy from Cinderella (or basically any of my favorite novels).
That’s not to say that Cinderella is totally wrong. There’s definitely a kernel of truth here. There will be a happy ending we finally get to the wedding supper of the Lamb at the end of Revelation. But that ending isn’t based so much your right choices or my right choices. It’s based on Christ (thanks be to God!). It’s also true that living according to God’s design is the most healthy way to live. You can avoid lots of unnecessary pain by living in accordance with his plan.
Just remember that this side of heaven, doing what’s right has (at best) a complicated relationship with happy endings. Don’t be caught off guard.