Harry Potter Life Lesson #2

The illusion of control.

**(no particular spoilers–if you’ve been not-living-under-a-rock the last decade, you’ll learn nothing new here to spoil the plot of the HP franchise)

As the series develops (now somewhere in the middle of book 5), the characters’ struggle to understand and submit to reality intensifies; it’s clear that Harry Potter’s Muggle (non-magical) relatives are willfully ignorant (or openly hostile) of any supernatural happenings in their lives.  Most other Muggles, too, are accustomed to a particular way of interpreting reality which shields them from any confrontation with magical, supernatural realities.  Put simply: there is nothing more to life than what meets the eye (and if there is, one promptly shuts one’s eyes).  Understandably, to be challenged with inexplicable phenomena is distressing–one hardly knows whether “up” is still “up.”  By the second half of the series, even magical humans are willfully blinding themselves to the growing reality of evil in their midst.  The truth is too disruptive to life as we know it, and the possibility of ignoring that truth is still open to us (so we take it).

We could apply this principle to so many parts of our lives–the Isaiah Women’s Bible Study has done so this year–whence comes our food and clothing, how are our brothers and sisters without jobs or homes treated, what is happening to the earth because of our lifestyle choices?  Today I want to consider a particular aspect of our social formation: our insistence that we’re in control of our lives and our destinies (and that our freedom to control ourselves is a good, desirable thing).

I’ve been noodling a movie I saw a few months ago, “Young Adult.”  In it, Charlize Theron plays a moderately successful author of a teen (young adult) book series, who returns to her hometown for a short visit and tries to reignite a romantic relationship with her high school sweetheart, who has moved on, gotten married, and recently added a baby to his happy family.  He’s bogged down with commitments–a steady job, a wife, a kid, a mortgage…  She’s fancy-free–no domestic relationships, a job that only requires a laptop and internet connection, the single life in the big city (the Mini-Apple, that is)…  Our society would have you believe that the one with all the constraints, all of life controlled for him, stuck in a stable, habitual sort of life, is the unhappy one, but as the film depicts (and as myriad surveys of physical and emotional health underline), it’s the “free” person who finds herself deeply unhappy.  Part of the problem is that she hasn’t been able to move on from being a young adult herself (like the characters in her books), but part of the problem is also that she’s made sure not to make any decisions which would threaten her freedom, tie her down, or require a commitment of her.  When we’re under the impression that everything is within our control, we are miserable, overwhelmed by freedom, and we become unhinged when out-of-control things happen in our lives.

How ever dimly, Harry Potter and other characters realize that the world is not under their control and seek to commit themselves to those people and causes and principles (and stories) which provide the sort of foundation needed to understanding the world in which they find themselves. Harry’s friendships with Ron and Hermione define who he is to those at Hogwarts, his school (just as his relationship to his mother, father, godfather, and teachers also shape what it means to be Harry Potter).  Harry’s actions, fighting evil and falling into an excess of dangerous situations, form the contours of how he is recognized and understood by others.  It is the choices that we make to give up our freedom that make us who we are–Harry is committed to his friends; they continue to eat together and study together when they are in a tiff.  Often due to circumstances beyond his control, Harry is thrust into situations where he confronts evil head-on; ruled by the story he’s been given about his early years (having survived a murder attempt as a tot), he chooses to continue to fight the evil forces of the wizarding world.

One wonders–was he really “free” to choose to fight in the first place?  “Freedom,” as exemplified by Charlize Theron’s character in “Young Adult” is the path which is easiest–the path that requires the least of you, leaves your as unfettered and unaccountable as possible.

Harry’s life has been completely shaped by events beyond his control, events which suggested a course for his life long before he was capable of choosing anything. He did choose to continue on the path that was set out for him by these early, formative events, but what propelled him on this path, what made the path “obvious” was the same thing each of us should seek in discerning our life paths–the one which leads to more life–the path toward the good, the true, and the beautiful.

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