As I was searching the wonderful TED archive of talks the other day, I came across the address that author J.K Rowling gave at Harvard Commencement in 2008. (Aside – the TED site/community is a great resource IMO and very much worth your time). I’ve never read any of the Harry Potter books and am only vaguely familiar with Rowling’s personal history as an impoverished single mother who became a mega-star author. But I was blown away by her speech and would categorize it in the theology of the cross realm– e.g. calling a thing a thing. In twenty short minutes, she gives an inspired messages about the importance of having a low anthropology, the reality of failure, of evil, of ‘imagination’ as identification and of the need for help to come not from within – but from the outside.

 

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

Some salient quotes:

1) Failure is real, and everyone WILL experience failure.

2) At the point of utter failure – “Rock Bottom became my solid foundation”
“Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential… I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized… You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something. Unless you live so cautiously, that you might as well not have lived at all. In which case you failed by default. …”

3) “Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.”
“… personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

“Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.

“Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathize. And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.”

4) “Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors.”
“I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. What is more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.”

5) Evil is real
“Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read.”

6) We need help from outside ourselves – and often that grace comes from total strangers.
“And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.
Amnesty mobilizes thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.”

7) Strength in Weakness….
“If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change.”