Monday, December 31, 2012

Thestrals, Dementers, Boggarts and Crises of Faith

I work in education and have the week between Christmas and New Year as a paid holiday break.  Over the last week, I have re-read the Harry Potter books in my relax time - and a parallel hit me about many people with whom I have spent time online over the last five years.  If you haven't read the books, it might not make as much sense, but here it is:

There are at least two specific instances in the Harry Potter books where suffering is tied to unique abilities - one positive and one negative. 

The first is possessed by those who have been touched directly and profoundly by death (who see people they love killed violently).  They have the ability to see creatures called "thestrals", while those who have not experienced death that closely are unable to see them.  These creatures pull the carriages that the students ride to get to school, so the students who can't see them believe they are being transported by the use of a magic spell.  Those who can't see the thestrals are positive they aren't there, and nothing said by those who can see them can change the minds of those who can't see them.  For those who can't see them, they simply don't exist.  It can be frustrating to those who see the thestrals to realize others don't believe that they exist, and, generally, they give up trying to explain and simply go on knowing that what they see so clearly (their own reality) literally is unknowable to others (isn't part of their reality).

Also, thestrals can fly, and knowing they exist and how to "cope with them" can lead to being able to fly with them - and, in at least two cases, they are instrumental in escape from danger.   

What struck me is that intense grieving often opens "our spiritual eyes" and allows people to see things that were invisible previously - things that those who have not grieved in that way remain unable to see.  I believe this has direct application to faith crises - and the more intense the crisis, the more difficult it can be to explain to those who have not experienced anything similar.  Just like the thestrals that are so obvious to those who can see them, everything about a faith crisis can be "invisible" to those who have not experienced what causes a faith crisis.  Just like with thestrals, it can be frustrating to those who see the thestrals to realize others don't believe what has been seen, and they often give up trying to explain and simply go on knowing that what they see so clearly (their own reality) literally is unknowable to others (isn't part of their reality).

Also, those who are able to navigate faith crises by seeing new and amazing things actually can experience joy and happiness in ways that others simply can't - because those new and amazing things are invisible to the others.

The second is a disability, of sorts, and deals with dementers.  "Demeters" are foul creatures that take away happiness and warmth - ultimately, by destroying the soul (spirit, in Mormon terms) through the "dementer's kiss", while leaving the body alive and functioning in a living Hell.  Those who have experienced extreme grief are more susceptible to dementers, since it is harder for them to let go of their grief and focus on the only thing that drives away the dementers: intensely happy memories that produce a protective force manifested in animal form called a "patronus".  It is instructive that it is not the existence of grief, even incredibly deep grief, that robs the person of the ability to focus on the memories that will fight the dementers; rather, it is the difficulty of focusing away from the grief and concentrating on the joy. 

Likewise, "boggarts" are spectral creatures that take the form of one's worst nightmare - the thing that each person fears the most.  For those who have not experienced deep grief and personal pain, that might be something as "normal" as a huge spider or a scary teacher; for those who have experienced extreme grief and pain, that might something as terrible as a dementer.  The key to fighting boggarts is humor - thinking of something so ridiculous that laughter is inevitable and altering the boggart to include the ridiculous image.  (eg. the scary, male teacher in an old woman's dress and silly hat or the spider on roller skates)

I don't mean to imply the extreme or automatic extension of what I am going to say, especially about online communities, since some of them offer excellent support for people experiencing a faith crisis of some kind, but it struck me hard as an analogy that might provide perspective in a new way:  

One of the problems that many people who experience a faith crisis face is the tendency to focus so much on the "issues" that they end up "wallowing in grief" in one way or another, including the classic manifestation of anger that accompanies feeling like everyone has been lying to them, and being unable to see any humor in their lives or with regard to their situation.  When a tidal wave of such grief washes over someone, it can be very hard to remember, much less focus on, the very real happiness and even joy that was experienced previously or look at their crisis in any way that allows them to laugh - and it can be very easy to minimize that happiness and joy as somehow "false" or "naive".  It also can be easy to turn to sources, especially online, that, in practical terms, are filled with human dementers - people who are dedicated to sucking out the former happiness and joy that existed prior to the faith crisis - and/or see nightmares all around them that they never imagined previously.  The human dementers might see their roles very differently (even as "saving" people), but, again, in practical terms, what often results is people who are left with nothing in which to believe - nothing that replaces the happiness and joy they have lost.

The example of boggarts also can fit the way some members interact with those who are struggling.  Sometimes, the only option when some things are said is to laugh internally and accept that some things that are profound to some people really are absurd to others.  The key is to recognize the personal absurdity of any particular idea and not attach it to the person who believes it, since, to that person, it is not absurd and often is powerful in a real and important way.  

There are two "lessons" I took away from my pondering about this:

1) A faith crisis often can open one's eyes to new things, and those things can be beautiful and fulfilling or dark and terrifying - real or imagined - frightening or laughable.  The difference isn't in the newly seen things themselves but in the way each person reacts to them. 

2) Prolonged immersion in grief and anger leads inexorably toward the dementer's kiss - not because true joy and happiness never existed, but because new happiness and joy cannot be experienced and created.  Intense grief doesn't have to be denied or forgotten; it simply has to be over-ridden by memories of old and new joy and happiness.  The danger of a faith crisis lies not in the grief and suffering it causes; the danger of a faith crisis lies in the forgetting or denial of the joy and happiness that once existed and still can exist - and it lies largely in the tendency to push away real friends who were part of that joy and happiness and replace them with associates who aren't focused on helping create new joy and happiness - who really are focused on deepening grief and separation. 

There are no easy answers in the book or in this post.  Fighting dementers and boggarts is not easy, and someone would be naive and a bit addled to ask for the type of experience that allows thestrals to be seen.  I don't have canned advice in this post.  All I have is an analogy that I hope touches someone in some way - that perhaps can lead to the type of individual pondering that I experienced and some kind of personal insight that will help.


Howard said...

Very interesting well thought out post! If you continue on this path of exploration you will eventually come to see grief and faith crisis as denial. When we accept things as they are instead of clinging to the way we want them to be our suffering ends, even our suffering over the death of a loved one leaving use with simply missing them.

Papa D said...

I agree, Howard.

I have believed peace comes from acceptance - and, in practical terms, that's what the description of charity in 1 Corinthians 13 outlines. It also has been a sub-text of multiple talks by Pres. Monson, Pres. Uchtdorf and Elder Wirthlin, at least.