Failure Redeemed: Responding to those in Pain
“Snape was slumped forward in a chair and Dumbledore was standing over him, looking grim. After a moment or two, Snape raised his face, and he looked like a man who had lived a hundred years of misery since leaving the wild hilltop.”
‘I thought…you were going…to keep her…safe…”
‘She and James put their faith in the wrong person,’ said Dumbledore. ‘Rather like you, Severus. Weren’t you hoping that Lord Voldemort would spare her?’
Snape’s breathing was shallow.
‘Her boy survives,’ said Dumbledore.
With a tiny jerk of the head, Snape seemed to flick off an irksome fly.
‘Her son lives. He has her eyes, precisely her eyes. You remember the shape and color of Lily Evans’s eyes, I am sure?’
‘DON’T!’ bellowed Snape. ‘Gone…dead…’
‘Is this remorse Severus?’
‘I wish…I wish I were dead…’
‘And what use would that be to anyone?’ said Dumbledore coldly. ‘If you loved Lily Evans, if you truly loved her, then your way forward is clear.’
Snape seemed to peer through a haze of pain, and Dumbledore’s words appeared to take a long time to reach him.
‘What – what do you mean?’
‘You know how and why she died. Make sure it was not in vain. Help me protect Lilly’s son.’
‘He does not need protection. The Dark Lord has gone –‘
‘The Dark Lord will return, and Harry Potter will be in terrible danger when he does.’
There was a long pause, and slowly Snape regained control of himself, mastered his own breathing. At last he said, ‘Very well. Very well. But never – never tell, Dumbledore! This must be between us! Sear it! I cannot bear…especially Potter’s son…I want your word!’
‘My word, Severus, that I shall never reveal the best of you?’ Dumbledore sighed, looking down into Snape’s ferocious, anguished face. ‘If you insist…’”
(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, page 678-79)
How do you respond to pain? If you have ever had the privilege of having someone who is completely, sincerely, utterly broken, come to you for help or comfort you know how paralyzing it can be. How can someone so consumed be comforted? It can feel very helpless when someone you love has collapsed, and so we usually respond with the clichés and platitudes we’ve been taught. If you yourself have ever been in a place where your whole world has crumbled then you know how much you longed for someone to accept, join with, and respond to you during this time of your life. You know that your loved ones wanted to help, but, you probably also feel how frustrating their cliché phrases were and how little they helped. Although it is true that we will never understand exactly what another has been through and we cannot teach someone what it feels like to have your life shatter, I do believe we can teach how to respond to those in pain. How to respond in a way that will have a lasting, helpful impact and will be less likely to cause further hurts. Let us take a closer look at how we currently respond to someone who is hurting, looking beneath the clichés at what is implied in what we say. Comparing our typical replies with how Dumbledore response to Severus when his world has been shattered has given me a clear visual of how damaging our platitudes can be, how much we need insight and training in how to respond to the hurting, as well as ways we can not only help the suffering to see through their pain but provide an avenue for offering genuine hope and assistance in moving forward toward a greater purpose.
Severus, brokenhearted in Dumbledore’s office, is one of the most illuminating scenes in the Harry Potter books. The reader knows something is coming all throughout the series, something is going on with Severus Snape, but it is only here that we finally begin to understand the true condition of his heart. This scene, one of Snape’s own memories, opens with Severus completely destitute and broken. He has lost everything he ever cared about. He is making noises “like a wounded animal,” he is slumped over, unable to breath normally, looking a hundred years older, and entirely consumed by grief, despair, and misery. I think it is important to note that the injuries Snape is suffering from are, at least partially, his own doing, and he knows it. This type of wound can be very complicated because not only is the person suffocating from the loss itself but they also must deal with the guilt and shame of claiming responsibility for their failures. The questions must be churning inside of Snape’s head…how did this happen…?…what if I had…?…why didn’t I…?…what kind of person does this make me…?…where does the hope lie for me now???
Severus is in tears, shaking, sobbing. He has come to Dumbledore seeking hope. Typically our response when talking to Severus in circumstances like these is, “it’s ok,” “it’s going to be ok,” and “it’s all part of God’s plan. We just don’t understand it all yet.” These are the responses we have been trained to offer by our parents, our friends, and the church. We want to believe things are ok or are going to be ok. We want the person in pain to see hope. We want to see these evil events as part of some greater plan. Although we have these good intentions in mind many of us on the receiving end of them have felt the simple fact that these statements are empty and can do an enormous amount of damage.
Take a minute to look at the situation from Severus’ point of view…brokenhearted, dejected, guilt-ridden, destitute…alone. It is NOT ok…and, it is not going to be ok. If it was ok then Lily would not have died. If it was going to be ok there would be a way to fix things. But there is no way to fix things. There is no way to undo what was done. There is no way to bring back what was lost. For Severus a statement such as “it’s going to be ok” is simply a lie. It tells him that the person speaking to him has no hope to offer him unless he can disregard the facts he sees and blindly believe that everything is fine. It tells him that Lily’s death is ok. It tells him that his role in her death is meaningless. It tells him that he should not be upset by these events but “pull it together” and move on as if everything was fine. Of course this is not the message we intend to communicate in saying “it’s ok” so perhaps we ought to think carefully before we speak. Think of what is communicated beneath the words themselves.
Another phrase I often hear others using when talking to those in pain is, “This is all part of God’s plan.” This statement makes me cringe. First of all, to make a statement like this is taking the position of someone who is speaking for God. The audacity and arrogance it takes to tell someone in pain that you know better, that you know God’s plan in general or even God’s plan for their life is in-and-of-itself shocking. How can we presume to know that an evil event is part of God’s plan? We are not God. We do not know what is in His plan other than the salvation of our souls revealed to us through his son. We can sit around and debate “The Problem of Pain” for hours. We can discuss why there is evil, why the innocent suffer, or even how a loving God could allow evil events to occur, until we have the logic all lined up, our intellectual opinions in order, and are divided accordingly, but the fact remains that people are in pain and whether it be because of circumstances that have been thrust upon them, because of their own choices, or because of some divine plan, we do not fully understand the reason they are suffering so much at this moment, and we should never presume to tell them we do. Secondly, if the statement, “it’s all part of God’s plan,” is true then look at what you are telling Severus, look at what Severus must conclude. If Lily’s death is part of God’s plan then this tells Severus that God wanted Lily to die, that God wanted him to be tormented with heartache and grief, that God wanted him to be the cause of her death. It tells Severus that God wanted him to assist evil or even become an evil person. Why would Severus want to serve a God that seems to desire this for his life?
What incredibly devastating conclusions Severus would come to had Dumbledore responded with the usual statements of “it’s ok” or “it’s all part of God’s plan.” Yet Dumbledore had a different set of first words to the broken, shamed, and hurting…
“She (Lily) and James put their faith in the wrong person…Rather like you, Severus.”
This response is one of acknowledging the situation. It points out facts. It begins the path to redemption. Dumbledore acknowledges what Severus has told him, and he states the facts on a level that Severus can connect with. What does a response like this have to offer Severus? What is suggested beneath these words? First of all, this statement allows Severus to accept his part in what happened. It does not place all blame directly on Severus but it does give him the opportunity to face his poor choices, shoulder the responsibility of them, and begin to understand how this all could have happened. This is essential. As Dumbledore says in book 4 (and I wholeheartedly agree), “He needs to understand. Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.” Acknowledging our sin is foundational to accepting forgiveness.
Secondly, this response tells Severus that Dumbledore can see Snape’s wrongdoing in the situation, and Severus is forced to conclude (because of Dumbledore’s continued presence and discussion with him) that he is still tolerable despite what he did. It tells Severus that someone will still talk to him, listen to him, allow him to feel and express whatever comes. Someone will allow him to be guilty, acknowledge the situation for what it is, and not send him away. Someone will demonstrate with action and say with words, “yes you may be guilty, but you are still loved.” What a powerful message to convey. It is a message many of us long to hear. It is the message that God himself sent us through his son. With this open acknowledgement and reliable presence, Severus has a guide who can begin to help him understand. Understanding our position enables acceptance of what happened, and acceptance allows Christ to transform our failures into redemption.
And, there is still more that this simple statement is subtly weaving into Snape’s tangled thoughts. With this statement, Dumbledore put Severs on the same plane, in the same category, as James and Lily. He does not offer vague hints about how everyone makes mistakes but he brings the conversation down to the people that are consuming Severus’ mind at the moment. Dumbledore takes the message he wants to convey and applies it directly to the only people, the only situation, Severus can think about. And suddenly Severus is made equal with them. With James, the person Severus has never been able to live up to, the person who’s place he has always wanted to take, and Lily, the one he loves. And now here Severus is broken and yet he is not alone. He did not need to be told that he was not alone or that he was not the only one who has made mistakes…he needed to see it. To have this idea connected to himself and those on his mind. With this statement, he can tangibly understand that he is not the only one who has made mistakes. With this statement, Severus must now conclude that if Lily and he have made the same mistakes, then maybe, as Lily’s must be, his mistakes can be redeemed. Perhaps he may find there is acceptance, understanding, redemption, and even hope in the face of his pain.
This is the message we want to convey to the broken but of course it cannot be completely understood, grasped, or even accepted right away. However, some of it gets through right away because Severus goes on to confess even deeper, socially unacceptable, feelings, as well as to accept what Dumbledore has to offer. It should also be recognized that Snape will continue to think about what Dumbledore tells him during this crucial meeting. He will mull it over and dissect it in attempt to understand and determine answers to his questions above. The response we give those in pain must be one that will lead them to beneficial, truthful, conclusions.
Severus cannot, of course, take it all in and bounce straight into action even with a response that leads him to the right conclusions. He needs time. In contrast at first he seems to sink even lower. This is after all a life shattering event. A life shattering event by definition requires breakdown, the collapse of everything in his life. It is not simply a difficulty he must overcome but rather a state from which he must rebuild everything he has ever known. Dumbledore moves on to offer hope in the situation but Severus is still fixated on the pain that is binding him. Lily is dead. He wants to die too.
What would you say if someone told you they wished they were dead? After all this response, when our world has caved in, is not that uncommon although it often goes unspoken. Would you shrug the speaker off, rush them to the hospital for psychiatric help, tell them they need counseling? In some cases this may be the right response but for life shattering events I don’t believe it is. These kinds of statements would imply to Severus that he is beyond help, that he must be sent away for a stranger or professional to deal with, that he has said too much and you do not want to be with him any longer. Conversation over. Sending Severus away for revealing such a difficult thought as “I wish I were dead” will not help him. Of course he wishes he was dead. Death is much easier than the pain of true remorse. Death is much easier than many of the things we face in life. Death would be much easier than the guilt, grief, and sorrow Severus will now have to face and endure. Death would be much better, in Severus’ eyes, than the possibility of making another mistake like this again.
The problem, I believe, is that in our culture, when someone coming out of a trauma says they feel like they want to die, we overreact. We fixate on the death part itself and we lose what they are really trying to express. When said after a life shattering event, the statement “I wish I were dead” is saying much more than a suicidal wish. Severus is expressing verbally the extreme pain he is in. He is expressing remorse, regret, agony, fear, and hopelessness. He wants to know that somehow these feelings will change. Severus is telling us that he would rather die than have something like this ever happen again. That he never intended things to end up like this, he wanted good for his life and Lily’s life, but here we are…and what can be done? His desire is for good and that is what Dumbledore sees, and so instead of responding with shock, distress, and diatribes of going to get help somewhere else Dumbledore simply says, “And what use would that (Severus’ death) be to anyone?”
Yet again Dumbledore has responded with a message of hope. He has not only implied to Severus that he has a purpose, that there is a tangible, noble use for his life but he has also allowed Severus to feel and express his deepest thoughts. He does not rebuke or criticize Severus for what he expresses but allows it to be what it is. And most importantly he does not send Severus away to get help from someone else or offer vague encouragements of “someday this will all be used for good” or “someday things will be better.” Allowing the broken to be where they are and express their devastation in its entirety, is enormously valuable, but it cannot be done if we react too quickly.
It is essential, though, that we do not leave Severus in this place. He wants out, but just as Rowling writes, he is peering through a haze of pain…he cannot see clearly. We must stick with him, stay there, in relationship through the slow realization that there is more than death for him. Severus needs something concrete to hold on to. And so, Dumbledore invites Severus to join him. He offers Severus a solid, visible goal to focus on. A purpose and the mentorship, guidance, relationship he will need to work through his pain and reach his potential. Relationship alone is not enough, or Severus may soon find himself back on the wrong path again, or still crumbling, unable to heal. But neither is only offering a purpose enough. In this state of extreme brokenness we need someone to walk with us until we can stand on our own again. Isn’t this the purpose of the church? A purpose offered in combination with a relationship. Yet we offer vague ideas and not concrete objectives. We offer brief conversations that fit neatly into our schedules but are unavailable at 2 in the morning when the hurting call. Interestingly enough, the goal Dumbledore presents Severus with is never something he would have chosen on his own. With a life that has been completely shattered, Severus is in a place where he will accept anything solid that someone else approves as right, even a direction he would never have considered before. When this is the case, what enormous potential we have to direct the paths of the broken and lost…and, what frightening responsibility. Yet this is real hope. It is something Severus can hold on to, something that permits him to begin seeing through the haze of pain surrounding him. It is only at this point that Severus is able to regain control of his breathing, and of his thoughts once again.
And so Snape, the broken, wounded death eater begins to stand again, and with time, how strong he will become. He will become a cornerstone in the fight against evil. He will heal. He will protect. He will save. He will take on burdens, direct paths, and be in a position that he alone is able to withstand. But…he wants it all kept a secret? Often times the truly broken do not see their return, their redemption as a positive thing. They feel the brokenness, shame, grief, and trauma that is attached to their memories of repentance and for them it is not something to boast about, display, or even tell others exists. So, yes, for now Severus wants his deliverance to be a secret, and Dumbledore allows it to be so. He allows for what Severus needs in order to move on at this time. One day Severus will reach a point where he is willing to share the full story, all of his memories good and bad, and he will share them with even the least likely candidate, Harry. But for now, these stories, these memories are Snape’s alone. They belong to him and are his to reveal when he sees fit.
Keeping others stories of redemption to ourselves is one of the most difficult things for us as mentors. We are inspired by them and we want others to be changed and see the value that lies in every individual tale. Yet, many times, keeping things to ourselves allows other to heal. Dumbledore has provided for what Severus needs at the time. He has distinguished between what is essential to change, what is necessary to provide, and what can be released for the sake of healing. When you respond to the defeated and dejected what are your words and actions telling them? What hope are you truly offering?
Unlike Dumbledore, we often do not know the full range of circumstances, emotions, and questions that twist and turn within the person we are consoling, and, for this reason more than any other, we should be very careful with what we say. Dumbledore is essentially saying, under the surface of his words, “yes, you were wrong, but you’re not the only one who has made this mistake, you still have potential to impact the world for good, your purpose can now be _____, and I’m here with you for the long haul.” He is allowing for remorse, repentance, and expression while also offering hope, purpose, and reliable relationship. For me, during my first months of recovery, I have very few memories of people trying to help me. Although I am sure many did, the only ones I remember were those who responded without clichés. Those who approached me in a genuine manner, allowing for guilt, connecting their comments to my situation, permitting me to express even socially unacceptable feelings without overreacting, and offering purpose with relationship. They are those who are still in my life even now three years later, those I can call when my circumstances start shaking, those who read Harry Potter with/for me, and those who call time and time again. They are those who have given me hope and purpose.
Having experienced a life shattering event it is much easier for me to catch myself before using the phrases “it’s going to be ok,” “It’s all part of God’s plan,” or “maybe you should get counseling” because I understand what they imply and the damage they can do. Although I am still often at a loss of what to say because I am still working through my own brokenness, I know how valuable those who connected with me where I was at have been in these last years of rebuilding. I treasure conversations with those who speak to me as Dumbledore spoke to Severus and I understand that I can respond to those in pain as if I were responding to myself when my life crumbled to its foundations. However, I also believe that in observing conversations illustrated in fiction such as this, we can teach those who have not experienced a life altering event to respond to those who have. So, next time we are asked, “How do we respond to those in pain?” we may think …as if they will become the hero I see in Severus Snape…as if each word will help them see greater truth, become something more …as if they already are, failure redeemed.