“Stuff Like That Always Sounds Cooler Than it Really Was”
The title quote is taken from book 7 page 379
(This essay is based off of Book 5 pages 326-329 and I highly recommend you read the whole passage before reading this essay.)
“‘You don’t know what it is like! You – neither of you – You’ve never had to face him, have you? You think it’s just memorizing a bunch of spells and throwing them at him, like you’re in class or something? The whole time you know there’s nothing between you and dying except your own – your own brain or guts or whatever – like you can think straight when you know you’re about a second from being murdered, or tortured, or watching your friends die – they’ve never taught us that in their classes, what it’s like to deal with things like that – and you two sit there acting like I’m a clever little boy to be standing here, alive, like Diggory was stupid, like he messed up – you just don’t get it, that could just as easily have been me, it would have been if Voldemort hadn’t needed me –‘” (book 5, page 328)
This section of the Harry Potter books is one of the most enlightening and well written passages I have ever read in a book. I am amazed at Rowling’s ability to put these ideas into words and often wonder if she realizes how precisely she hit the nail on the head. In my opinion, this passage of text not only expresses numerous emotions a person who has come from traumatic background or experience is feeling but it also highlights some extremely important deficiencies I see in the church today. We as the “Christian Community” do not seem to recognize when a person is trying to explain something as difficult as surviving a trauma. Nor do we know how to respond to these individuals, let alone train people who are going out into missions or the world at large, with the tools to survive possible traumatic experiences. And if that doesn’t cause enough harm we raise up those who “survive” trauma as some sort of hero when in fact, “stuff like that always sounds cooler than it really was.”
First off, some background information. Harry is coming into book five after the extremely traumatic experience of being tortured, seeing things others can only imagine, and watching a friend killed in front of his eyes. He is angry, wounded, and hurting. Others around him seem to take one of two stances on his new mood: they either decide he is crazy and the things he speaks (or better yet, does not speak) about are lies, or, they decide that he is a star, a champion, solely because he survived. At the beginning of this passage Ron and Hermione approach Harry requesting that he teach them Defense Against the Dark Arts so that they too can “do what he did.” Of course Harry attempts to respond with some sort of grace and humility. He tells them simply that he does not have any special skills and that it was luck that helped him through each of the situations they mention. However, Ron and Hermione merely laugh and continue listing off his accomplishments. This causes Harry to rise and eventually shout at them both, “LISTEN TO ME!”
This is exactly how it starts in life as well. When the rare event occurs someone wants to talk longer than a few minutes about really rough experiences, and, when someone is present who wants to hear what has been learned, it usually begins in this way. We praise them for their traumas with phrases like… “You’ve been through so much,” “Look what you’ve done!” and “It’s so amazing that you …” Yet, in their eyes, these are not accomplishments and they are far from amazing. We praise the man who is the sole survivor of a mountain climbing expedition and commend his amazing accomplishments. We romanticize his experience and speak of how we desire to one day do the same. Yet he does not see it this way. He sees the loss of the simplistic fun of outdoor adventures, the death of his friends, the pain that will follow him whenever he looks at that mountain again. And so he responds with a dismissal of our praises much in the same way Harry did. “It was just luck,” “I had help,” or “that was just a fluke.” Unfortunately, we do not listen. We interpret their response as humility, not as an expression of pain and confusion, and we plow forward insisting that we know better and do not need to listen to what the other might have to say. We insist on raising their self-esteem with ignorant flattery of their endeavors. And so the traumatized either back away, shut down, and give up trying to explain, or, they shout, “LISTEN TO ME!” Perhaps, finally we will listen, because, “(we) don’t know what it’s like.”
Do those of us who have grown up in comfortable American society honestly think that we can know what those who have experienced trauma have been through? Yes, sometimes we do. I know. I used to be there myself. We read books about horrific experiences, talk about hardship amongst each other, we think we can imagine how hard it is, and we conclude that praise is the solution, and yet it is not. A truly listening ear is what is really needed. Encountering evil, confronting trauma, facing extreme loss is not something we are taught to deal with. For some reason the church overlooks the necessity of teaching its people how to meet life shattering circumstances. We are not taught how to meet evil. They teach things such as turn to God, read your Bible, pray about it, pray about it, pray about it. But is it really about memorizing a bunch of Bible verses and throwing them at him like we are in church or something? I have lived overseas twice and have been on many mission trips as well as worked with outreach in my local community and never once have I seen a situation where spouting off Bible verses is useful. Memorizing Bible verses, prayer, and turning things over to God may be useful in our daily lives that are full of normal worries and anxieties. However, in a traumatic, soul changing event, fear and survival take over and what has been memorized is irrelevant. There is no time to stop and pray when you are being chased, attacked, or are inches from death.
“The whole time you know there’s nothing between you and dying except your own – your own brain or guts or whatever – like you can think straight when you know you’re about a second from being murdered, or tortured, or watching your friends die.” This statement is dead on! In extreme events there is nothing between us and death except the will to hang on, and we are not talking merely of physical death either but death of the spirit and soul. How do you hang on when your soul is collapsing? They do not teach us that in their sermons. And what makes us believe that a person can think straight when in a traumatic situation. If your child is drowning you do not stop and pray. If someone is beating you, Bible verses do not come to mind. When a friend has been mortally wounded we can no longer reason. “Horcrux” fear has taken over. We are immobilized. The only preparation that the church offers is unhelpful and even untrue. Our culture preaches over and over again that death is the worst possible outcome… “what’s the worst that could happen?” “At least you didn’t die.” “It won’t kill you.” However, unfortunately, death is not the worst possible outcome, and Harry/Rowling once again nails this on the head.
Look at the order that Harry lists the shocks he faced. “You know you’re about a second from…” first, “being murdered.” Death is first. Obviously this is a fear. We worry about death. It is scary because it is unknown and yet it is the least of the three fears because Christ has conquered the fear of death. “To die is gain.” Second, “being tortured.” There are pains, experiences, sufferings that cause us such agony that they affect our very soul. Living with these is considerably more difficult than simply disappearing into the unknown world of death. And finally, “watching your friends die.” And Harry pauses after this phrase. He stops. And I imagine this is where his voice falls back to a normal level as well. The tone changes because the memory of watching a friend murdered before his eyes is much, much, much worse than his own death or even the physical pain he faced. It slays a part of his soul. These soul injuries are carried with us for the remainder of our lives. They change who we are. They take something that cannot be given back.
After my own return from overseas when I was diagnosed with PTSD, I visited with a variety of counselors. They told me time and time again at the end of our sessions, “Well, don’t forget, that at least you survived.” The point is, and the point they do not see, is that I didn’t survive. My body did yes. But my soul, my person, is different. The old me is gone, dead, and whether this be for good or for bad…I am different. They’ve never taught us that in their sermons, what it’s like to deal with things like that.
And so we sit there acting like those who have been through terrible events are clever to be standing here before us, and those who fell messed up somehow. In point of fact, it could have been anyone one of us. Is someone who has survived cancer better than someone who did not? Yet, we display them as heroes. “She is a breast cancer survivor!” the presenter announces, but what does this say about those that did not survive? That they did not fight? Of course they fought, and so did their family members, yet with this statement we have implied that they were week, unworthy, stupid. Harry may have known why, but in reality, we have no idea why one survives and another does not. The mountain climber who is praised by his friends for surviving where others in his company did not begins to feel survivors guilt because he knows this admiration is hallow, ignorant, and romanticized when, if he had stepped two inches to the left it just as easily could have been him.
So, the wounded are left on their own, unable to explain what they have really encountered whether because there is no one to listen, because those who will listen cannot understand, or because their experiences are praised rather than recognized as confusing and complex. Too often I have spoken with those in evangelical churches only to hear them say, “Well, just look at this as a blessing. Someday you will be able to use this to help others.” A blessing? Not only does this comment completely disregard the pain a person faces when encountering tragedy but…a blessing? No. A blessing is something that we, ideally, wish for others. I would never wish my traumatic experiences upon someone else. They are not a blessing. As for the ability to use a traumatic event to “help others,” this is a possibility. However, I think many of those who deeply understand tragedy and trauma do not see their experiences as something to talk about, and even when they try it is met with praise, misinterpretation, and ignorance. Traumatic events are often connected to shame, regret, doubt, and confusion; they are not the heroic events that others understand them to be, and are therefore very difficult to speak about. At the end of this passage when Harry has finished his retort, he is utterly exhausted and ashamed. He collapses into a chair, craving rest, it’s difficult to even go up to bed. Harry does not see value in what he just spouted off to Ron and Hermione, yet it was exactly what they needed to hear. Harry, however, only feels the influx of anger, shame, confusion, injustice that are attached to his experiences. These surfaced feelings don’t just go away, not with the end of the conversation or even with a nights rest. They affect his dreams that night and he awakes in the morning with his scar prickling. Do we recognize the enormous energy it takes for others to recount their experiences to us? How about the uncertainty, the emotions, the memories they must go through to recount an event that we interpret as “an accomplishment?”
It is my desire that the church will one day recognize the great holes present in the training they give to us. That one day we will teach what it is like to face evil so that those going out into the word, college students, missionaries, rescue workers, and so many others will have the skills they need for their faith, their spirit, their soul to survive an encounter with Voldemort. That Harry would not only have the help he needs to process events but that when speaking about them he would not need to use the phrases, “Stop laughing!” or “ Listen to me!” It is true that those who endure true hardship, trauma, and horrific environments will always amaze us. But let it be because they can teach us what it is like to deal with scars to the soul and not because we have romanticized how wonderful it would be to climb a mountain, speak another language, live amongst leapers, or meet Voldemort face to face.