In 2008, a 42 year old woman gave a commencement address at Harvard University. She spoke to the high fliers about the ‘ Fringe benefits of failure and the Importance of imagination.’ Her name was J.K.Rowling. That speech has now been published as a gem of a book entitled, ” Very Good Lives.”
Rowling spoke about how she saw herself as an utter failure, 7 years after graduation- with an imploded marriage, poverty, unemployment and the rest of what poverty brings. She also spoke about facing the reality, focussing on writing, and building up life from the very rock bottom of loss.
Quote: ” Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.”
Rowling spoke about the power of imagination- the gift of ‘ thinking oneself into other people’s places’ and how that gift leads to empathy. Her work at Amnesty International had exposed her to horror stories and tales of resilience- which she later captured in her work. She speaks about how we ” refuse to know about the sufferings which do not touch us personally.” The importance of becoming a voice for the voiceless, and being a part of change in the world were reiterated.
Quote: ” ..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. We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better..”
Almost serendipitously I ended up watching two movies on the same theme of grateful, graceful living.
” The Bucket List” starred the formidable talents of Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson; as two patients facing death and choosing to embracing life intensely, together. I was awed by Morgan Freeman- the sheer beauty of his acting , his dignity was a majestic sight in itself. Of course, no one can act better as a headstrong rebel than Jack Nicholson and all the Cuckoos flew over his nest in this one!!
” Staying Alice”, was fragile as a gossamer web- with the Oscar winning performance of Julianne Moore as the brilliant, radiant Columbia University Professor and mother of three, coming to terms with ” The Art of Losing”, due to Alzheimer’s disease. As we watch the extraordinary woman who knows everything about words, struggling to recollect the connections, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry acquires new meaning.
Both the movies reminded me of Rowling’s speech. There was an acceptance of reality by the protagonists- with all the failure of body functions, pain and imminent loss- death and disease are dark tunnels where you grope by yourself for light. There was also the power of imagining oneself into a better place- a dignity, a grace and a rare beauty of the resilience of leading ” Very Good Lives.”
I am not a great fan of Dylan Thomas as a real man, but his lines are fascinating.
” Do not go gently into the good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light”
Those lines resonate-with not only fighting against failure and death , but also in creating a fresh burst of energy in the reader.
And so, having gifted Rowling’s latest to my daughter, when she invited me to watch ‘ Vale Decem’ with her- I was not expecting any more coincidences.
She explained to me that the Latin meant ” Farewell Ten”- about the regeneration of the 10th Dr Who, to the tunes of gratitude sung by the world to him .
‘Amma it means, may the fates be with you till eternity because you have brought us peace. You see, David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor Who, he lived a Very Good Life!’
I end with Joseph Campbell.
In his great work, ” The Power of Myth”, he elaborates on the basic theme.
” The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves or have listened only to their neighbours to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave, and what the values are that they should be living for..
The Dragon of our Western tales, tries to collect and keep everything to himself. … he just guards and keeps. There are people like that, and we call them creeps. There is no life from them, no giving. They just glue themselves to you and hang around and try to suck out of you their life.
My general formula for my students is ” Follow your bliss.”Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it.”