When I was 24 and living in Los Angeles, my friend Chris and I had a day off and decided to visit Disneyland. I was not generally a fan of amusement parks, but this was the King of Amusement Parks. How bad could it be? It turns out it couldn’t be bad. With the exception of having to wait in lines, the overseers of Disneyland were not about to permit one moment of unpleasantness or danger into our experience. I was miserable.
I do not mean to suggest that life is inherently unpleasant or dangerous, but without contrast it is very hard to know the difference between what we want and what we don’t want. To write a good love story, you must first place your heroine out of love, remind the reader what it is not to love so that when she finally does love, the reader is granted the delicious relief of dropping the weight of lovelessness. The greater that weight, the greater the relief, and the greater the understanding of love’s value.
I try to remember this when I find myself sitting in judgment of someone else’s suffering. If only they would get off the drugs, quit smoking and drinking, drop the useless boyfriend, quit the miserable job—why it’s just so obvious, what in the world is wrong with them that they don’t see it? Some day, in all likelihood, they will, and when they do, oh, the stories they’ll tell.
In a Disneyland Utopia, the only impediment to happiness would be the boredom of long lines. But in the reality of human lives, the only true route to happiness seems to be through the swamps and jungles of unhappiness. We love our stories of swamps and jungles for a very good reason. Not as a warning to others never to venture into darkness, but as a reminder to those already deep in it that they went in because they very much wanted to find their own way out.
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