Wednesday, September 28, 2016

J.K. Rowling to Harvard Graduates

JK Rowling receiving an honorary degree from Harvard

This has come out in book form, but if you don't want to buy the book (cute as it is, with pictures on every other page, and so on), you can read it here.
She gave this speech , "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination," on June 5, 2008.

I'd like to discuss some of her ideas with someone, if anyone would like to comment on this post.

For example, she says in her speech:
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life....

So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
Do you agree with this or any part of it? What has your experience with failure been like? Do you have to go to the very bottom of the pit in order to get to where you're only doing the work that matters to you?

Or what does it take? Or what has it taken for you?

And what advice do you have for someone who is struggling with getting to the essence of what he/she wants to do? (Maybe imagine you are the one giving a speech to the Harvard graduating class of 2008: what advice do you have for them?)

What about this bit, including the quote from Plutarch:

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...
If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; 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 change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.
Do you think this is true? How has anything you have ever done, helping those who are powerless or need the help you can give them, changed the world?

Finally, from the middle of her speech:

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think 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 leads 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 enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.
Do you think this speech helped anyone who heard it that day? Do you think reading it here helps you in any way? Does it make you want to do good in the world? Does it inspire you to be more creative? Does it ring any kind of bell for you?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sound of Silence

Paul Simon played this on the 10th anniversary of the bombing of the World Trade Center. Hearing it makes me cry, still 15 years after that horrible day.