In May, the New York Times published a list of memorable speeches from the recent commencement season. The article brought to mind an inspiring speech made by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling to the graduates of Harvard University, class of 2008. It was memorable, because the theme was failure.
Having experienced failure on an “epic scale,” Rowling says that there were benefits to the experience. Seven years after her college graduation, she found herself divorced, unemployed and a single mom. “I was as poor as you can be in modern Britain without being homeless.” says Rowling.
However, she remembers it as a time of having to “strip away the inessential,” which freed her to do the one thing she felt truly called to do–write novels. While stressing the importance of not romanticizing poverty, living through that dark time taught her a lot. “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means you are ever after secure in your ability to survive.” A true gift, according to Rowling.
In her speech she also gives high praise to imagination. Uniquely human, it allows us to “think ourselves into other people’s places.” The power of empathy, in its highest form, can lead to collective action. It can save lives, free prisoners, and right social wrongs.
Failure is an inevitable part of life. But, by God’s grace, it makes us wiser, more humble, and better able to persevere. And imagination? Let’s be encouraged that we can use it every day, even in the smallest of ways, to understand, and serve, others.