Harry Potter meets Alexander Supertramp

“Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again: Rejoice!” Philippians 4:4

I am working on rejoicing today. I read J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard. It was a very wonderful message I thought. Her two themes, failure and imagination, made connections in my mind to a movie I watched over the weekend.

I rented “Into the Wild” on Saturday for the second time. It’s the Sean Penn movie about a kid who graduates from college and then disappears on a journey of self-discovery. He takes on the name of Alexander Supertramp and Alex leaves no trace of where he is going and he never communicates with his troubled family again. Alex meets people who seek to connect with him but all along his journey he only seeks to separate himself again and again.

The young man’s journey touches on the theme of failure that Rowling spoke of at Harvard. She experienced failure and overcame it. She encouraged the young graduates to look at failure as a possible outcome of their future endeavors. Her personal triumph lends a golden tint to failure; but she encourages them to see failure as opportunity. Alex checks out of life in response to a prescribed concept of failure; a damning view of failure that labels people as winners and losers. He chose to select failure in rebellion: he selected his own concept of what it meant to be successful.

Rowling echoed that sentiment but went about it in a completely different way. She described coming to the realization that failure had set her free, much as Alex set himself free. Rowling described how her decision to write sprang from failure. She decided that if she were to fail again it was a short fall back to rock bottom. Alex decided that rock bottom was the only place to be. It was where he could be free.

Alex removed himself from everyone, family, friends and acquaintances. He went into the wild of Alaska and lived out his days alone. He discovered too late that relationships are what give meaning to life. He discovered in the wild that loneliness is a trap. I wonder how Alex would speak of failure to the Harvard graduates today. I wonder if he would define failure as adhering to society’s concepts of success or if he would define failure as isolating yourself from love.

Rowling’s second theme was about imagination. She didn’t talk about using imagination to build fictional worlds but rather to experience and empathize with the pain of others, to use those feelings to encourage action to improve the lot of the less fortunate. Alex lacked empathy. He shielded himself from it because of his pain. In every encounter with the characters he met along his journey, he failed to empathize with their pain. He wasn’t uncaring but he maintained a safe distance from all of them and just when it seemed he might become connected, he fled, into the night when he could.

So rejoice in the opportunities of failure and help others to find ways to rejoice as well; especially those who are in need of being uplifted. Alex wrote before he died that “Happiness is only real when it’s shared.” My message today is to rejoice and to find someone to share your happiness with. Trust your failures to teach and not destroy you; and as Rowling did, use rock bottom as your firm foundation for building anew.

Be Well and Rejoice!