I was recently asked to speak at the Cowichan Centre for Peaceful Community. It was September 11th, the 15th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre. I was caught in a conundrum. How do I say anything positive on the anniversary of an attack that changed how we look at the world forever? I struggled with this for a couple of weeks and then, just two days before – on the 9th, I was procrastinating, as I often do, by watching YouTube videos and I came across JK Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard University and I knew what I wanted to say.
JK Rowling is, of course, the author of the Harry Potter series of books, and arguably the most celebrated and successful children’s writer of all time. Her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, hit the stands and the bestseller lists and became widely known and wildly popular. I have a bit of a stubborn streak and I often avoid the things that everyone says I “must do” or “must try” or even “must read” and so, even though my daughter was four when the first book was released and a perfect age (in my opinion) for the Philosopher’s Stone, I studiously avoided buying a copy. That is until I was poking around in a bookstore with another mother I knew. When she found out that I hadn’t started reading Harry to my daughter, she put the Philosopher’s Stone in my hand and said, “Buy this.” So I did.
At that time in my life, I had more in common with Jo Rowling than I knew. We were both single parents, both out of terrible marriages to abusive men, both battling depression, and both wanting to write. My daughter was struggling too. Her father was not only abusive to me, he was horrible to her as well. She was diagnosed with ADD and her teacher at school was so awful to her that year because of her symptoms, she begged me to let her change schools even though she would be moved away from her tight-knit group of friends. And when she did change schools, she struggled for months with loneliness and depression. That is a gut-wrenching thing for a mother to watch in her child at any time but even more so when her child has not yet moved out of elementary school.
Harry Potter handed us a lifeline. Every night, no matter how awful the day had been, we snuggled in her bed and read another chapter of Harry’s life. His battles felt so familiar to my daughter – a horrible teacher, an abusive parental figure, bullying, isolation – so when he fought Voldemort and Professor Quirrell and won it felt like we had won too. In fact, we had. We had finished the Philosopher’s Stone, just as my daughter finished that school year and we both felt like the battle had been won. Of course, my daughter and I and Harry were handed other battles by life, as life is wont to do. But through it all, Harry walk with us.
There is a great deal of wisdom to be learned in Harry Potter and from JK Rowling.
What lessons have I gleaned from reading Harry Potter? The words of Jo Rowling carry a ring of truth:
“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and above all those who live without love.”
“There will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”
“Things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end, if not always in the way we expect.”
“We’ve all got both light and darkness inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”
In the course of the Harry Potter books, Harry faces in Voldemort, an evil with the power to destroy any goodness in the world. And what is it that made Voldemort, the most powerful wizard in the Harry Potter world, vulnerable to a simple skinny teenage boy with glasses? It was that he underestimated the power of love.
Acts of love surround us every day, even – or rather especially – in times places of great evil. Some of the stories are well known – the family that hid Ann Frank, Oskar Schindler saving the lives of so many Jews, the Christmas eve armistice in WWI, Romeo Dallaire’s bravery in the Rwandan genocide, Doctors Without Borders, Mother Teresa – but there are so many that we will never hear of because they are done in anonymity.
We are living in a time of great evil. ISIS attacks are splashed across the news. You have to look through the cracks to find the stories of love, but they are there. There is the couple from Berlin who started Refugees Welcome, a website that matches refugees with people willing to share their homes with them. The Ismaili activists in the city of Salamiyah in the centre of Syria refused to cooperate with the rebels and welcomed, sheltered and fed 20,000 Hama refugees in 2011. Dr. Peter Gary, a Holocaust survivor, speaking to tens of thousands of young people over two decades about the power of love and the defeat of hate. We don’t have to look far to find examples of love. And how fortunate we are for that.