"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment... and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn." -Thoreau

Friday, December 9, 2011

On J.K. Rowling, Success, and What-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life?

Every now and then I am struck by a harrowing pang of bewilderment. 
(That is to say, I peek at the tangled mess which is the what-am-I-to-do-with-my-life question, and wonder how in the world I shall ever set about undoing the hideous knots and imposing an acceptable degree of order upon my "adult" life.)

Today I spent a good bit of time pursuing miscellaneous activities, and in the process I did manage to strike a bit of gold. Apparently J.K. Rowling gave Harvard's Commencement address two years ago.
I found her address delightful and inspiring and exceedingly relevant. I have always felt that Rowling must be a wonderful creature to be able to write the profound, life-shaping passages found in her books, and hearing her speak only reinforced this belief. I tend to credit Montgomery, Alcott, and Pierce for most of my childhood-shaping, but Rowling (and Hugo!) certainly deserve to be up there. The Harry Potter books brought me to tears of laughter and sorrow on many an occasion. (Yes, maybe Harry was a little dramatic in book five, but I'm certain I shed tears of rage and mourning right along with him, as he sent Dumbledore's possessions to a crashing end in a senseless effort to protest Sirius' death.) 

There are certain things that set my heart ablaze. 
One such thing is the pure friendship embodied in the Harry Potter books- having people of virtue and integrity willing to risk their lives for love of one another. There is something incredibly beautiful in the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione- but not just them. The Weasleys, Lupin, Hagrid, Sirius (to Wormtail, "You should have died! Died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!"),  Dumbledore... there's so much of loyalty and love that permeates their actions.

Another (related) is Harry's realization in Half-Blood Prince that he is in control of his fate, despite the prophecy.
[Oh dang. Things just got serious. I strode to my bookshelf, pulled out book six, and turned to chapter 23.]  There are a good four pages worth of quote-worthy material at the end of that chapter, possibly my favorite conversation of the series. Yep, it's quote-time. (But not four pages' worth.)

(Dumbledore is trying to persuade Harry that the prophecy is virtually irrelevant. Harry isn't getting it.)
“It is essential that you understand this!” said Dumbledore, standing up and striding about the room, his glittering robes swooshing in his wake…. “By attempting to kill you, Voldemort himself singled out the remarkable person who sits here in front of me, and gave him the tools for the job! …And yet, Harry, despite your privileged insight into Voldemort’s world…. You have never been seduced by the Dark Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort’s followers!”
“Of course I haven’t!” said Harry indignantly. “He killed my mum and dad!”
“You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!” said Dumbledore loudly.
“But, sir… it all comes to the same thing doesn’t it? I’ve got to kill him, or- ”
“Got to?” said Dumbledore. “Of course you’ve got to! But not because of the prophecy! Because you, yourself, will never rest until you’ve tried! We both know it! Imagine, please, just for a moment, that you had never heard that prophecy. How would you feel about Voldemort now? Think!”
Harry watched Dumbledore striding up and down in front of him, and thought. He thought of his mother, his father, and Sirius. He thought of Cedric Diggory. He thought of all the terrible deeds he knew Lord Voldemort had done. A flame seemed to leap inside his chest, searing his throat.
“I’d want him finished,” said Harry quietly. “And I’d want to do it.”
“Of course you would!” cried Dumbledore. “You see, the prophecy does not mean you have to do anything! But the prophecy caused Lord Voldemort to mark you as his equal… In other words, you are free to choose your way, quite free to turn your back on the prophecy! But Voldemort continues to set store by the prophecy. He will continue to hunt you… which makes it certain, really, that-"
“That one of us is going to end up killing the other,” said Harry. “Yes.”
But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew- and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents- that there was all the difference in the world.
Let us pause for a moment and allow that to soak in.

So, my point. My point is, Harry Potter invigorated my stubborn resolution to prize love as the most beautiful and empowering and noble of human actions.
The love of Anne Shirley (Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables) is light-hearted and uplifting (I dream of being an Anne-ish friend, teacher, and mother), but, though I do not doubt its resilience, it is unmarked by the suffering which is the unique product of gross injustice. Harry Potter adds so much in the way of silent strength and poignancy. The love of that world is love in the face of murder and torture, fear and anguish. It is daring to hold on to beauty and hope in the face of those who would rip all goodness from the world. It is what we would die for- but, more importantly,  it is the love that we live for.
Oh, Harry Potter! J.K. Rowling is a kindred spirit. Definitely.

What I was going to say... before delving into the Harry Potter portion of my soul... was that Rowling seems to understand my feelings concerning life/success/failure perfectly.
Coming from parents with an "impoverished" background with serious concerns about the practicality of their dreamy daughter's desires for life... Hmmm... I think that sounds a bit too familiar. [I also definitely appreciated the part where she said her parents may not have found out she was studying Classics until the day of her graduation. I have certainly been tempted to do just that (only with philosophy, of course).]
I always enjoy the rants which follow any mention of my latest philosophy class, complete with heated claims that philosophy is for those not good enough to do science or mathematics, bleak predictions of future joblessness and subsequent starvation, sour threats to retract all forms of parental support in the case that I nevertheless insist on pursuing such a foolish life-path, and other forms of, generally speaking, overwhelming support for the notion of a philosopher daughter. It's encouraging, really.

But, like Rowling, I understand my parents' perspective. Okay, maybe I don't fully understand their viewpoint, but when I can step back from the stinging sensation in my chest, it's evident that what they want is for me to move forward in life. They want me to be able to provide for myself, and, moreover, to flourish.

Now perhaps this is simply my trying to be philosophical, but that last statement seems to introduce a desperate need for a definition. What in the world does it mean to "flourish"? What is my standard for success?

For my parents, wealth is an obvious component in this calculation. [Points against philosophy.]
For myself... Don't get me wrong, it's tempting to adopt that as a criteria, but I'm not sure that riches really get to the heart of my desires. I don't care about flashy cars or mansions or pointless displays of opulence.

Current requirements for my "house of dreams" are a lovely garden, enough space for a happy family, general freshness/quaintness/cuteness, and an awesome library.
(Admittedly, I would be willing to put a good deal of money into that last one.)
I want a career that is intellectually demanding, rewarding, and conducive to forming meaningful relationships or human connections.
I want to do work that has a positive impact in terms of improving the lives of others or contributing to justice.
I want to contribute to the beauty of the world.
I want to be a confidante and mentor.
I want to be a loving (and beloved) wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend.
I want to be a life-long lover of ideas.

The question is... how do I find the connection between my standard of success and selecting a clear career path? Would I do best in education or medicine? Should I teach, counsel, provide therapy, or practice general medicine? Is it justifiable to spend a life writing papers when I could help someone regain the ability to walk or speak, or help provide care to the millions dying of malaria, AIDS, or other diseases? But surely an educator plays a crucial role in the way of fortifying and enlightening minds!
What would I be best at? What would make me happiest? What would bring me the most success?

Nope, I still have no idea how to untangle the ugly mess. All of this...to no avail.
I find myself hoping that, slowly, things will be made clear and the knots will ease up a bit. Somewhat magically, relatively painlessly, and swiftly enough that I evade the failure I so greatly wish to avoid.

I'm reminded of when I complained to my friend that I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.
And she (Brynna) would have none of it. "You're going to be happy, that's what you're going to do."
But, but, but!- I wanted to protest.

...Somehow, I'm thinking she's right.

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