This article was originally published on Psychology Today on May 7, 2019.
by Jamie Aten and Colleen Aten
In my work as a disaster psychologist, I’m always looking for examples of people who embody resilience in the wake of adversity. Sometimes they turn up in unexpected places I never thought to look.
Our family is a Harry Potter family. We all love the books, but no one in my family is a bigger Harry Potter fan than my oldest daughter Colleen, who I’ve asked to co-author this blog post with me. In fact, this post was her idea—including which insights and examples we should highlight.
While we were driving to school together recently, Colleen pointed out the resilience of J. K. Rowling’s fictional protagonist, Harry Potter. The more we talked about the way Harry demonstrated resilience throughout his adventures, the more we realized that the boy wizard had a lot to teach us on the subject.
In the following, we share a specific lesson on resilience from each of Rowling’s magical Harry Potter books. (Spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the books or seen the movies!)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Coping with Things Outside of our Control
One mark of a disaster is that there is some element that is beyond our control. Whether it’s a train wreck or Superstorm Sandy, having no control over a situation that impacts us in such seismic ways can feel terrifying.
When Harry’s aunt and uncle are first exposed to the world of magic, they despise how different it is from the life they lead. Instead of embracing the new, they attempt to ignore it. But ignoring it didn’t make it go away any more than ignoring a train wreck would! In comparison, when Harry discovers this alternate world of magic, he accepts that there is more to life than he ever knew before. His acceptance helps him thrive in the wizarding world and accomplish much more than if he had followed in the footsteps of his family.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Community Support
Because we are never meant to weather disaster alone, those whose lives have been impacted by adversity need community support. This can include things like providing a listening ear, bringing meals, and offering rides. The support we experience from others makes it possible for us to heal, thrive, and flourish.
During the lonely summer after Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, he receives a visit from a house-elf named Dobby who intercepted a letter from Harry’s friends. Among these friends is Ron Weasley, who becomes increasingly worried when Harry fails to respond. With the aid of two of his brothers, Ron liberates Harry from the Dursley’s home and brings Harry to the Burrow, home of the Weasleys. There, Harry is accepted with open arms as a member of the family. The Weasleys surround Harry in a supportive and loving community in order to help him thrive and flourish.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Holding on to Joy in Difficult Time
Although many catastrophes never make the news, and others fade from the evening news after just a few days or weeks, survivors learn that recovery takes time. Although it can be tempting to throw in the towel, those who weather adversity well are those who demonstrate perseverance. And during the sometimes-lengthy season of recovery, it’s critical to be able to find hope and joy despite difficult circumstances.
In his third year at Hogwarts, Harry comes across two creatures that force people to feel fear and despair. The Dementor is a creature that forces individuals to relive their worst memories. Allow one near enough and it will suck out your soul. Utterly unique, a Boggart will take the form of whatever terrifies a person most. However, both of these beasts are defeated in a similar way: through joy. A Boggart is destroyed through laughter, and Dementors can be driven away with a Patronus, a physical manifestation of happiness. Harry is incredibly gifted at recalling joy in his worst moments of despair, allowing him to triumph.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Cycle of Accepting Help and Paying It Forward
In the wake of adversity, we may want to help the least when we actually need it the most. Most often, we’re trying to rebuild the life we’ve lost. Research has shown that those who fare best are those who are able to openly accept help. Moreover, research has shown that acts of altruism, whether it’s shoveling the sidewalk of an elderly neighbor after a blizzard or making an anonymous donation, help us find meaning in being able to help others who’ve also been affected.
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Though all of the Triwizard Tournament events throughout his fourth year at Hogwarts, the key to Harry’s success is accepting help and, in turn, helping others. Hagrid, Hermione, and Mad-Eye Moody all help Harry prepare for the first event. Harry recognizes that their assistance is beneficial for him and accepts it. As a result, Harry, in turn, helps Cedric by warning him about the dragons so he won’t be at a disadvantage. As the cycle continues, Cedric recognizes that Harry is struggling with the second task and offers him advice. While Harry is reluctant to take Cedric’s advice, he eventually does so. This advice turns out to be crucial in order for Harry to complete the second event. In the final event, the help they previously lent each other leads them to aid one another once again while in the maze. This cycle of help is a crucial aspect of Harry’s success that can be applied to our own lives.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Overcoming Differences
After a community has been impacted by tornadoes, or hurricanes, or ice storms, or fire, neighbors who may have never spoken to each other find themselves united against a common enemy. They learn each other’s names. They offer aid. They help one another out. Whatever it was that once separated them—race, or class, or language, or privilege—suddenly seems insignificant.
At the Sorting ceremony during Harry’s fifth year, the Sorting Hat sings a song about how important it is for Hogwarts students from all houses to overcome their differences and unite. These words are taken to heart by a group known as Dumbledore’s Army. This community is formed by students in defiance of their dictatorial teacher, Dolores Umbridge. Through uniting the houses of Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor, students are able to overcome the adversity posed by Umbridge.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Learning from Memories and the Past
Consider the military veteran who coaches a recent amputee on the kinds of responses to her new disability that she can expect from friends and family. Because this leader has already traveled the road she’s now walking, he is able to help her navigate the new terrain.
Through his sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry is guided by Professor Dumbledore through the stored memories of others in a magical artifact known as a Pensieve. Dumbledore teaches Harry that by looking into the past, we can learn from not only our mistakes but also the mistakes of others. Learning from the mistakes of the past allows us to better ourselves in the present.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Faith
Research has shown that faith can help people make sense of and cope with adversity. When faced with adversity, faith helps people place their confidence and hope in a power that is greater than themselves.
Though Harry’s faith in Dumbledore is tested many times throughout the series, never is it more prominent than in the stunning final installment. In the wake of his headmaster's death, Harry discovers evidence discrediting Dumbledore, leaving Harry to become frustrated with him and beginning to question his intentions and instructions. This is most prominent when Harry disregards Dumbledore's instructions to destroy Horcruxes, instead choosing to search for and try to understand the mysterious Deathly Hallows symbol. Harry’s search results in many catastrophes that could have been avoided if he exhibited a strong faith in Dumbledore.
Both professionally and personally, we’ve had the privilege of witnessing resilience in the lives of those who’ve faced disaster and adversity with courage and grace. We recognize that same resilience in volume after volume of Harry Potter’s adventures. Those of us who have or will weather adversity have a lot to learn from this magical character.
Colleen Aten is a sophomore at Wheaton North High School. In her free time, she enjoys reading and writing. She was a founding member of her middle school’s library advisory board, and regularly volunteers at the Wheaton Public Library as a member of the teen advisory board and teen service club.