Gene Wilder (© Dave Pickoff/Associated Press)

Gene Wilder
(© Dave Pickoff/Associated Press)

As is typical when popular figures die, the Internet was suddenly abuzz about Gene Wilder when he died last week…true stories, apocryphal stories, secret stories. His life and career were being evaluated by anyone who felt the impact of his death, whether that person is qualified or unqualified to offer an opinion.

I am among the latter group, the “unqualified,” and so my opinion is actually about something Wilder said in his role as Willy Wonka, words written by Roald Dahl, but brought to life by Wilder. After little Charlie Bucket proves himself worthy of Willy Wonka’s trust, Willy says to him at the movie’s end, “But Charlie, don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted. …He lived happily ever after.”

I have always found myself doubting the concept of “happily ever after,” no matter where I find it. “Happily ever after” seems to last only until the next month’s bills come due or until the next doctor’s visit. However, I’ve realized that the important element in Wonka’s pronouncement is the verb phrase, “lived happily.” Wonka (Wilder) doesn’t tell Charlie to “be happy” …he tells him to “live happily.” A major difference that I completely support…making an explicit and conscious effort to live a certain way…active verb and clear adverb.

Of course, if a man had everything he’d always wanted, it might be easy to live happily. That man—or woman—could enjoy his family, friends, home, car, investments. But life isn’t so simple. For any man or woman, having a family and friends and a home and a car and investments puts him at risk: so much to protect, so much to lose!

Being the lucky man that I proclaimed myself to be in an earlier blog, I am a man who has everything I’ve always wanted—not suddenly, but everything. Yet I find myself frequently struggling to take Wonka’s advice: live happily. Life continually sends challenges and disappointments, charlatans and thieves, illness and tragedies…life is not a happy thing all by itself. But I try explicitly and consciously to live happily.

Look at Charlie’s first reaction when initially Wonka tells him that he has lost: deep disappointment and disillusionment are clearly in Charlie’s face. At the same time, though, Charlie redeems the moment by returning the Everlasting Gobstopper to Willy, an explicit and conscious effort to reject Grandpa’s plan for revenge. An explicit and conscious effort not to give in to the disappointment. “So shines a good deed in a weary world...” says Wonka—quoting Shakespeare—and Charlie suddenly gets everything he'd always wanted: the chocolate, the chocolate factory, the Oompa Loompas, a new home for his family….and Wonka challenges him to “live happily.” Perhaps I’ve read too much into the line—the closing line of the movie—but I like it better that Wonka is challenging Charlie than lying to him.

I am a “dreamer of dreams" that Wonka says we are. Living happily is a dream of mine…a dream that is evasive and difficult and tiring…a dream worth dreaming: living happily.