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Harry Potter, the heroic sufferer

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This post originally appeared on August 6, 2007, on the Leading Questions blog.


To Suffer is To Be Human

Professional people make mistakes. Some are minor, some idiotic, others catastrophic. Some are innocent, others not, some recoverable, many terminable. All professional people experience the suffering of failure and its consequences. Yet, we are not supposed to either acknowledge it or let it affect us. To do so is to deny our own humanity

Suffering in life takes on many forms. It can come at our own hands when we’ve done something regrettable or through the agency of other people. The question for us who are in the professional world is whether the suffering we experience has any value. Is there something to affirm in suffering, or is it simply an experience to avoid at all costs.

It was this question that came to me as I came to be introduced to Harry Potter. 


My Entrance into Harry Potter's World

I came late to the Harry Potter stories. All the reviews of the films and books had misled me to think that it is a story about the heroism and courage of a young boy at a school for wizards. For ten years, I could not muster the emotional energy to become involved in a story that is a children’s fantasy. Increasingly, my practical and intellectual interest is reality, the real world where people live and experience life. I’ve lived far too long diverted by spin and pseudo-reality. The world we live in, I find, is filled with fantasy, or rather it is an artificial world of escapist dreams. The diversion of fantasy can have the salutary effect of buffeting us against the suffering we may experience in real life. Yet, it is when we face reality that we discover aspects about our lives and ourselves that living in a dream world doesn’t afford. Ultimately, living in a fantasy world makes it more difficult to face the realities that beg for us to pay attention.

Recently, I listened to an interview with David Yates, director, and David Heyman, producer of the latest Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which compelled me to enter Harry’s world. The way they described the movie helped me to see that there was more than a children’s fantasy tale in J.K. Rowling’s story. So, over the course of one week, I watched the five HP films in order. I came away from viewing the series with a deep desire to read the stories, and will soon, and to reflect on their meaning for our time.


Harry Potter, the heroic sufferer

Harry Potter was born into suffering through the death of his parents. The experience of suffering for Harry continues through his mistreatment by the Dursleys, the peer abuse of the Sliveran punks, and then through the long series of attacks by Lord Voldemort. Of the reviews that I’ve read over the years, what stands out to people is Harry’s courage in the face of danger. It is certainly there, but what makes Harry the most unique hero of time, in league with Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings, is the effect that suffering has upon how he lives his life. His strength in facing danger and tragedy has been born in suffering. During one of the movies, Harry comments that what he is facing is no worse than the loss of his parents and the abuse of the Dursleys. Suffering is the core of his life experience. It has made him the heroic figure that he is. As the child who lived, he lives not because of some magic ability, but because of the strength of character that comes through suffering.


This dialog with Sirius Black from the Order of the Phoenix film captures some of this perspective.

Harry Potter: This connection between me and Voldemort, what if the reason for it is that I'm becoming more like him. I just feel so angry, all the time. And what if after everything I've been through, something's gone wrong inside me. What if I'm becoming bad?

Sirius Black: I want you to listen to me very carefully Harry. You're not a bad person. You're a very good person, who bad things have happened to. You understand?

[Harry nods his head]

Sirius Black: Besides, the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters. We have all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the power we choose to act on. That's who we really are.

I find this a very biblical perspective that goodness and darkness inhabit us all, and that we choose to cater to one or to the other. Harry suffers because of the darkness in the world. This suffering has a chastening effect on him. It wipes away the illusions about there being some magical resolution to all problems. He understands that he must act. And so he does.

This perspective on Harry’s character reminds me of the ancient Stoics who had a similar reality-based view of life. They carried no fantastical optimism into life. They recognized that goodness rises out of suffering. C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist and Oxbridge don had a similar idea that suffering produces a reservoir within us that increases our capacity for love. That is what I see in Harry.

Harry reminds me of Homer’s Achilles whose heroic endeavors are for honor within the community. For Harry, it isn’t some abstract notion of community that he serves. His courage comes from a core of goodness that is released through his friendship with Ron and Hermione and through the teachers who see in him something special. His suffering inoculates him from a fantastical idealism. He lacks the innocent optimism of youth that would certainly have been completely crushed by the Dursleys. In this sense, he is like the ancient Stoic who knows his duty and does it regardless of the consequences. He can never fully feel joy because the suffering of loss is with him all the time. Yet, he knows love from his friends, and their love for him inspires in him acts of sacrifice that completes the bond of their little community.

For me, this is what makes Harry the most compelling character that I’ve come across in a long, long time. I can’t wait to read the books because I want to see what Rowling sees in this. I don’t think his suffering is merely a literary device. There is a moral purpose to it, and through its power, transforms the community that surrounds him. Hear me correctly. Shared suffering transforms a community, giving them the strength to face the most challenging difficulties.

In the Order of the Phoenix film, at the point where the Hogwart’s wizards and witches leave to go to the Ministry in London, Harry tells them that he wants to go by himself. He says this to protect them from danger, death, and the experience of his own suffering. Yet, they know because they have been with him so long that their lives are cast together, and they now will share in his sufferings. It is a powerful statement about friendship and community. It isn’t simply the bond of shared values. It is the bond of shared suffering that gives their fellowship real depth and life.

It is this very experience that so many professional people lack. They experience suffering through failure, loss, or the cruelty of others. For the most part, they suffer alone. Several years ago, during a series of encounters with men in various professions, I asked them, “If you were found out to be a failure today, who would stand by you?” Virtually all of them could only answer, “My mother.” Tragic that professional people who are endowed with great talent and opportunity are also alone in their personal pursuits. It is at this point of failure that most experience the suffering of isolation. We lose a child or a parent, and people come to our side to offer comfort. It may not be the precise wording, but I heard once, “Success has a thousand friends, and failure none.”

It is also what so many churches, synagogues, and religious institutions miss as well. Communities that avoid identification with the suffering of others can only see suffering through the lens of an abstract philosophical concept. Listen to people who speak of the power of their religious experience. It often has to do with the experience of others reaching out and sharing in their suffering just when they need it. It is this shared suffering that makes the message of redemption so powerful for so many.

In The Order of the Phoenix film, near the end of the concluding battle at the Ministry, Lord Voldemort tells Harry that he is a fool and will lose everything. Harry looks straight at him and tells him that he has what Voldemort lacks, and that is friends and love. At that moment, Harry feels sorry for him. How many professional people in hearing this exchange will look at Harry with longing for the same type of camaraderie and togetherness?


Frodo’s suffering with Sam

The closest contemporary literary example to Harry Potter’s suffering is the story of Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings. Frodo steps forward and accepts the role of the sufferer as ringbearer. He is able to do so because a fellowship of men, hobbits, elves, and trolls join him in the journey. Ultimately his journey to cast the ring into the fire that will consume it is a lonely one, shared only with his friend Samwise Gamgee. Throughout Peter Jackson’s treatment of Tolkien’s mythic story, we see Frodo change as he absorbs the suffering that comes with being the ringbearer. Frodo’s greatness comes from his determination to see his quest through to the end no matter what the consequences. Through suffering and the acceptance of his own mortality, Frodo does his duty and accomplishes what no other character in this story could do. Through the faithful long-suffering friendship of Sam, Frodo is able to bear the suffering through to the end of his quest. For Frodo, this suffering remains a mark forever on his life, a living presence that eventually leads him away from the Shire.


Suffering, Heroism, and Community

It is not unusual for contemporary films to feature suffering as a human experience. Often this suffering is viewed as the victimization of a person, rather than an experience that leads to strength, courage, and friendship.

As we see in Harry Potter, the core of his suffering is from the loss of his parents. Death in our society is treated as an inconvenience. It is the most inexplicable experience. Our culture hates to acknowledge our mortality. We retreat into unreality as a way of not dealing with it. Yet as we see in Harry Potter, a story that takes place in a fantastic world of wizards and witches, reality is filled with death and suffering. Out of this experience comes personal greatness and the salvation of community.

In Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Yoda says, Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”  This is the conventional wisdom of our time. We run away from the emotions of fear, anger, and hate because we do not want to suffer. What Yoda does not say, and what we see in Harry, is that these feelings of fear, anger and hate are real. Most of us suffer in silence because we are afraid to face this reality. When we accept suffering's reality, we can discover virtues that bring strength. Through Harry, we see not a person who has given in to his anger. Rather, we see his anger in the context of the love and fellowship of his friends. They are the counterbalance that transforms the sufferer from victim to hero.


Finding Strength in Suffering

I can’t tell you that you will find strength through your own experience of suffering. It is for you to discover, on your own, with people who care about you, the meaning of the suffering you may experience. Regardless of whether your suffering is self-imposed or an affliction from some other source, recognize that your struggle to find strength will make you a person who is able to befriend others who suffer in the same way. Ron and Hermione’s friendship with Harry was deepened by their sharing in his experience of suffering. Frodo and Sam were transformed through the suffering they shared. I don’t believe we can go looking for people who will share our suffering. Rather, the key to finding strength is our recognition and empathetic response to other’s suffering. In effect, we must give strength to find the strength that we need.

The embarrassment of failure, the humiliation of a lost job, the emptiness that comes with the loss of a loved one, or the anger that accompanies being the victim of another person’s cruelty can become a source of strength for greatness, if we let it. We see this in Harry. Can we see it in ourselves? I hope so.


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