Once Upon a Time: A Storyteller’s Thoughts on Fear and Believing
Belief is a strange thing. You cannot make someone believe something. You can present an argument, an opinion, or an example – and then, the other person must decide what to believe. Some people believe in god, because that’s how they were brought up. Environment and experiences factor into our belief system, because we don’t live in a vacuum. To a certain extent, we are what we live through.
Sometimes, though, we cloud our own eyes. We are so busy not believing that we cannot consider what we might be missing. Perhaps it is out of fear. Perhaps it is a desire to avoid responsibility. Perhaps it is a thousand things, crashing together like thunder in storm. In that case, the result is what matters. The outcome.
There’s something inherently sad about someone who lacks faith – any kind of faith, not religion. The ability to believe in things is a powerful thing. When absent, its dearth leaves a mark, a shadow, a hole. You know it when you see it, too. It’s easily recognized on a face, dancing in the shadows of a smile. This is a person who might be so strong in other areas – but so weak in this one instance. It can undercut the other facets of a person – the strength, the bravery, the goodness. Our ability to believe is intertwined with who we are.
Take Emma Swann, for instance, in this Sunday’s episode of Once Upon a Time (The Stranger). Essentially, she’s Obi Wan Kenobi. She’s the only hope for the people of Storybrooke. She’s the only one who can break the curse that befall the folks once who lived in a world of magic. By staying in Storybrooke to be with her son, Emma took the first step – that was a leap of faith. She has taken small leaps (believing in Mary Margaret, trying to trust August, the enigma, wrapped in stubble, wrapped in a typewriter). But the big leap? That she is a hero? That all the people she’s come to know and care for have been plucked out of fairytales? That scares the hell out of her.
Who wouldn’t be terrified of that kind of responsibility and pressure? Who would just blindly accept that kind of thing? No one. Because our experiences make us who we are, just like they formed Emma. Emma grew up in a world without magic, unprotected. Her life was full of struggles and hardships. She relied on what she could see and feel, putting faith in no one but herself.
In a brilliant revelation, August revealed himself to be Pinocchio. Since magic arrived in Storybrooke, he has also been affected – never mind that he was living it up at the human equivalent of Pleasure Island. His leg has turned to wood. In a moment of desperation, trying to force Emma to believe, he brings her to the place where she was found. He was there, too. His father bargained for his life, placing him in the wardrobe with baby Emma. He was the one who brought her to safety, only to abandon her in a moment of weakness. (The wooden boy became a real boy, and now that real boy is a man who can see his own shortcomings.)
Facing all this, Emma launches into to panic mode. She doesn’t want the power or the responsibility. The truth that people might be depending on her for their lives? When all her life, no one depended on her – and she depended on no one. It’s too much. By the end of the episode, she has come to a very human decision: she’s going to run. But she’s not going alone. She’s taking Henry with her. She’s fleeing, instead of fighting. Because her faith has faltered. Her kickass, take no shit from no one attitude is full of stress fractures and holes. She’s been unable to tell when people are lying or when they’re telling the truth. She’s lost her compass, somehow. Her sense of herself has been shifting, because she has been affected by her circumstances.
Growing up, we often lose our somewhat indiscriminate ability to believe in everything – fairies, monsters, magic, myths, and even people. That shining, bright copper penny feeling dulls, leaving us with an ache that we often try to ignore. (See, Peter Pan and Tinkerbell – and if as a horrible, candle-snuffing word.) It’s so important to hold on to a small part of ourselves that can still cling to magic, even the everyday magic of a sunset. A beautiful song.
Emma Swann has lost that – or buried it. She’s all heart and strength, without direction. She’s focusing on Henry and gaining possession/custody of him – because that’s the easier fight in a lot of ways. Believing in fairytales would completely shake her belief system to the roots. (Side-note: All along we’ve been referring to August as the Stranger — but he isn’t the only one. Not really. He’s part of Fairytale Land. I’d posit that Emma, who didn’t grow up in Fairytale Land, is the true Stranger.)
August believes that only he can convince Emma to believe, again. And he fails, spectacularly. That failure leads to a sort of reunion with his father, though only August knows who the man truly is. For me, I think that it’s not August who will restore Emma to herself. He doesn’t have a rapport with her. He doesn’t have the right connection. The only person who can make Emma believe isn’t even Emma herself. It’s Henry. He left Storybrooke in search of his mother. He is her heart, her center. Her reason. Somehow, that little kid (who is beyond awesome) has to make her see things as they are, not as she expects them to be.
Fairytales and magic aside, that is a very honest experience. We do not often want to see what is in front of us – especially if we are scared or not open. Especially if it means taking on something huge and daunting. Especially if it means diving into the wreck, a leap of faith without any semblance of a net.
But that kind of risk? It’s what makes us great. It’s what makes life worth living. It’s what brings a bit of magic into an otherwise ordinary world. We are what we dare.