Growing Ever After

by Julie Rigano, Director of Family Ministry

On the surface, Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods is merely a musical about fairytales. In the first act we see classic fairytale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Jack before his beanstalk. Their lives intertwine as their paths cross in the woods during their individual adventures. The first act ends with a grand, “happily ever after” song tying up all the loose ends.

The second act is where things get interesting as we see what happens after “happily ever after.” All the characters are happily and peacefully living their lives. All their problems from the first act have been resolved. Cinderella is no longer alone and under her evil stepmother’s rule. Jack and his mother no longer have financial troubles. They sing about how they are “so happy.” Then a major event creates new problems for them and sparks a need for the characters to go back into the woods. As they prepare to go back, they sing,

“Into the woods,
It’s always when
You think at last
You’re through, and then
Into the woods you go again
To take another journey.”

The characters are surprised when they need to go into the woods again. Hadn’t they solved all their problems? Wasn’t life supposed to be simple now that they have their wishes fulfilled? How could a new problem arise? Didn’t they already have their happily ever after?

Frankly, I find “Happily ever after” a foolish concept. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in an ongoing journey of growth. The phrase “happily ever after” directly contradicts that. The phrase implies that after one, huge, seemingly impossible, hurdle is cleared, no other hurdles will stand in the way of an individual and their happiness.

As a UU, and professional storyteller, I like to use a different model to tell stories. Instead of “Once upon a time…” and “…happily ever after,” I like to say, “every day…one day…every day since then.” Every day, Julie practices the guitar alone. One day, she auditions to be a part of a local band she admires and they get into the band. Every day since then, Julie practices with the band.

The story doesn’t discount happiness as a part of the story, but it’s not the crux of the story. The crux is change. “Happily ever after” may sound nice at first, but it’s stating stagnancy. We want growth even if it means battling the overgrowth of the woods. “The woods” is where we are challenged and where we grow. It may be scary, but we want trips into the woods in our life and a lot of them. So I encourage you to not be afraid of your quests in the woods, whether you are finding your prince or battling giants, but to embrace them. You will leave the woods a changed person.