Once upon a time there was a girl who found herself forced by her parents into a marriage of convenience. Resigned to her fate, the woman had three children with her husband, who turned out to be a dull, if harmless man. Then one day, the woman fell in love with a young troubadour who came to town. Realizing that her life was a loveless sham, she packed her bags, wrote a farewell note, and left with the troubadour, never to return.
That's the female version of the story. Here's the male version: once up on a time, there was a peasant boy who herded pigs in the village. One day, he spotted the princess picking flowers in the forest and fell hopelessly in love with her. When the princess was kidnapped by a fire-breathing dragon, the boy went on a quest to rescue her. Eventually, he killed the dragon and brought the princess home. As a reward, the boy became king, beloved by all his subjects.
These stories are simply two versions of one of the most pervasive myths in our culture. I think of it as the Romantic myth, which tells us that we are trapped us in the prison of social and religious conventions. Deep inside is the real, unique self, struggling to be free. If we can break free of society's restraints, listen to our hearts, follow our dreams, and be true to ourselves, we can find our true love and fulfil our genuine destiny...
In this myth, the 'true love' is whoever or whatever is meant to fulfil our potential. It may be our 'soul mate,' or our version of slaying the dragon: winning the Derby horse race or climbing Mount Everest. Whatever the case, our challenge in life is to throw aside whatever or whoever may be holding us back and pursue our true love until we attain it. If I discover that the person I married was not my 'soul mate,' it makes sense to leave her behind to find the one person I was meant to be with. If fixing cars or working as a bank teller seems to be unfulfilling, why not quit to go and fly hot air balloons across the world (or something)?
Why not indeed? Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit.” (Matthew 7:16-17) However empowering and freeing the Romantic mythology may be for you or others, for me at least, it has proven a lie, simply because its fruits have been so poisonous. With disturbing regular, I hear the story of unhappy people who decide that their lives are a lie and either run away with someone else, or embark on some crazy scheme that they believe will bring them fulfilment. Different settings, with different characters and different motivations, but without a doubt, the same story, over and over again.
What's the problem with this pattern? Simply this: people can't just walk into the sunset forever. The troubadour eventually has to give up his itinerant ways to provide a regularly income and a stable living environment for his wife, who is pregnant. The former pig farmer must engage in the day-to-day stresses of ruling a kingdom. In short, daily life has to be lived, and the myth of Romance fails to satisfy because it cannot account for that ongoing reality. As vibrant and real as it seems at the beginning, it has no staying power, no ultimate fulfilment. Once the sun goes down and all the fireworks have exploded, darkness always descends.
What's the alternative to the Romantic lie? How do we respond when we are tempted to escape our lives with the promise of fleeting excitement and fulfilment elsewhere? Quite simply, we need to rewrite the myth. Perhaps, with time and effort, the woman can discover heroic qualities in her 'dull' husband that she never conceived possible. Perhaps a hard-working pig farmer can find a village girl with inner qualities superior to that of a princess. Perhaps the ordinary life we have been given contains an extra-ordinariness that only acceptance and steadfast commitment can reveal.
A life story composed on these lines may lack the passionate intensity of its Romantic counterpart, but at least it ends as all great stories should, with the peace and joy in this life and the real possibility that we can indeed live happily ever after.