“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
– Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
It is election season in my country, and what better time to consider the power of choices? And who better to teach us about them than Albus Dumbledore?
Of course the obvious meaning of the quote is fairly simple: it’s not what one can do, but what you choose to do, which defines who and what one truly is.
We fantasize about having superpowers, everything from physical power to superior brains, from magic to mad science, able to be anything or do anything. Yet we see in such stories that these are only what one can do, and stories where that is all there is to the characters tend to be a bit boring. It is the choices they make which define heroes and villains as either heroes or villains, and, as humans, we revel in the power of choice.
It is the one superpower we all have, to make what we will of our lives, of ourselves, and, together, of the world.
That is where we start getting into the deeper meaning of this quote.
Though we don’t know it until the final book, near the end of the series, we learn that Dumbledore made some very serious mistakes in his youth. He once believed much of what the villains do, that those with magic, the people with more power, are greater and more worthy than those who lack it. He cavorted with a young man who became one of the worst villains in history, long before he inadvertently taught a boy who became the worst of all. He was consumed with his own ego, his superiority, his power… his abilities.
Then he suffered a tragic loss, made all the worse for his own personal involvement with it, and he awakened to a great truth: the equality of death. For all his power and wit, he was helpless before death, and sorrow, the same as any other man. This shocked him, horrified him, humbled him, and revealed to him his weakness. He realized that he was not one who could be trusted with power, so he devoted himself to serving others instead, even if he rose to become a leader in such.
In short, his choices, and the consequences that followed, showed him who he truly was, and he acted on that knowledge.
Even in our wildest stories, with our greatest heroes, even what we mortals can imagine tend to pale in comparison to the power of the cosmos: all of space, all of eternity, all the majestic power of everything that shines in the darkness, all the physicality of creation, the balancing of a multitude of forces, some of which we don’t even have any names for yet, let alone any true comprehension of, and, above all, that intricate alignment of everything which paved the way for Life itself.
How much does a few thousand years of a long-lived sorcerer compare to the unending eternities? How much does the power to shatter a planet with a huge laser compare to the unbridled power of all the stars beyond the sky? How does the power to fly faster than light compare to the entire evolutionary history of countless species and countless cycles of reproduction to distill so specific a shape as the one which any of us may see in a mirror?
Answer: not much.
So, when we get to real life, and what real people can do… everything we build our egos on tends to look a little less amazing, doesn’t it? Sure, some of us can do some pretty amazing things, be it in athletics, art, intelligence, or what have you. But we aren’t super-powered, and even if we were, we’d still pale in comparison to the universe. Humanity can do some incredible things, and individual humans can stand out as astounding, but, all in all, none of us is really that far removed from what anyone else can do.
Thus, what we can do, what we are able to do, is not what we should build our… self… on.
You know what the universe can’t do?
It can’t deliberately kick a man when he’s down… or dry a child’s tears.
It can’t betray a best friend… or support that same friend through whatever may come.
It can’t break a family… or build one on a foundation of love, trust, and respect.
It can’t say “I am better than someone else” while standing atop a corpse… or rescue the sick from illness, the impoverished from suffering, the wounded from dying, the orphan from solitude.
The universe cannot hate. And it cannot forgive.
The universe cannot choose what to be, or what not to be.
Humans, tiny and weak and mortal, can do all of that and so much more.
The universe cannot break a nation, any nation, let alone one that once stood for everything good, and it can’t rescue that same nation either.
…soon this will be a post I look back on, and we will know what we chose, and what we did.
The universe can’t pray, either, but I am very much praying right now.