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Monday, May 18, 2009


Yesterday, a friend and fellow writer sent me a transcription of JK Rowling's commencement address at Harvard (delivered, I believe, in 2008). After a week of feeling discouraged, anxious, and depressed, I felt re-energized and inspired by Rowling's perspective. In other words, this text was exactly what I needed to see/read/here. Strange how every so often the universe seems to cut you a break!
I've included some of my favorite excerpts from the address, below:

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. 

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 fail by default. 

Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone's total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.  

And a longer passage, about the relationship of imagination to empathy and the importance of our imaginative faculties:

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's minds, imagine 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 sympathise. 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. 

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 can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy. 

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people's lives simply by existing. 

 Sing it, JK!


Jordanna Fraiberg said...

I think same said *friend* sent it to me this weekend and I've been thinking about it, too, and will even use part of it as the basis for my *career-day* advice at a high school tomorrow...and yup, been sitting at the computer for an hour and haven't started yet!!!!

Jordanna Fraiberg said...

by the way, I have no idea why I wrote *friend* like that since she is one of the bestests! ignore me, I'm back on coffee.

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