Ariel lost her majestic voice. Rapunzel wandered aimlessly in a desert wasteland for years in misery while the prince and father of her children was rendered blind and did “naught but lament and weep” over the loss of his wife. Cinderella was first orphaned, then enslaved before she tried on the glass slipper that changed her world.

We want the good part of the fairy tale, the culmination of all things good; and with such idealism, we have only preserved the idea of happily ever after. On the screen and in our minds we have rewritten the stories and forgotten about the battles the heroines chose to fight. The resolve is only significant because of the magnitude of the darkness. It required a love and justice that were extraordinary to redeem what had gone so awfully wrong. The love that was grand is powerfully intoxicating. But we have chosen to overlook the pain and the price that the players paid to find it.

The flaw is not in the stories themselves or in the restoration they portray. The flaw is in the happily ever after, since real life does not always end in such a way. Yet of even this fantasy we were carefully warned. The Grimm’s Brothers’ conclusion of Sleeping Beauty provided a caution: “They lived happily ever after, as they always do in fairy tales, not quite so often, however, in real life.” It was the only disclaimer, the distinction made between real life and fantasy, for the rest remained quite realistic.

In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton penned a chapter he cleverly titled “The Ethics of Elfland,” in which he claimed there are two requirements for every fairy tale.1 The first — one he calls the doctrine of conditional joy — is the necessity of the “if.” If you don’t return by midnight, the coach will go back to being an ordinary pumpkin. The second rule is what Chesterton calls the fairy godmother philosophy: The condition stipulated cannot be questioned. He further explains that one can never ask the fairy godmother, “How come?” — for to do so, he warns, would only beg another question. To ask, “How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?” the fairy godmother could rightfully answer, “How is it that you are going there until twelve?” The rule is essentially this familiar bit of clichéd advice: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” In the case of fairy tales, we cannot require an explanation for the supernatural. The acceptance of the inexplicable is simply the way it works to be in the presence of miracles.

In real life, we would now do well not to draw our conclusions to an expectant close. When there is the chance of a miracle, but no guarantee of such, there will certainly be the alternate possibility of disappointment, fully explainable reality, and pain. This present world is not the best of all possible worlds. It is just the best of all possible means to the best of all possible worlds. Heaven is the happily ever after. Until then, we still live with frogs and century-long naps.

There is, however, a “once upon a time.” There are evil and heartache. There are darkness and our own dragons to fight. There are not the likes of singing mice, but there are details equally miraculous. More miraculous.

I wanted to leave the familiar — my own evil and heartache — and find people who were the most vulnerable; to be where something was tragically broken that was not me. It was not to feel comforted by seeing the pain of another, but rather to feel another’s pain. I needed to exist outside of my own. Smooth and flawless held nothing to comfort me, nothing to teach me, and nothing to fill me.

The reality is that I was running from something I could not fix, a self I could not forgive, and a story I could not accept.