When J.K. Rowling told Emma Watson that she regretted pairing Ron and Hermione, the buzz of consternation among Harry Potter’s legions of fans reflected more than the obvious injustice of her revision. (Ron and Hermione were always meant for each other, and Harry and Hermione were a shining example of perfect platonic friendship!)
I think some of our generation’s collectively expressed angst stems from being reminded of the passing of our childhoods. It was not so very long ago that we were biting our nails, waiting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to come to our front doors. For me, and for most of the rest of the class of 2015, the second installment of the seventh movie was part of our ceremonial farewells to home in the summer of 2011.
So there’s another layer to the pain Rowling stirred: We’re not little kids any more. Everything won’t be all right if we just day-dream about affectionate Hippogriffs, and we’ve long since given up wishing we had a Time-Turner to save us from homework.
The pain of growing up is a distant echo of a larger pain: We’re human beings. We’re growing up, we’re changing, and ultimately, we are fragile and mortal. We’re subject to entropy, death, and decay. We college students can sometimes forget this. Right now, we’re at the peak of our physical prowess, but our bodies will be in decline from now until we die.
I say this neither to be morbid nor grandiose. Some of the best thinkers—and some of the people who enjoyed life the most—have been the most blunt about the inevitability of death. Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French aristocrat and lover of fine wines, said in his Essays that the goal of education must be to teach a child “to die well and to live well.”
The first time I read that, a thrill went through me. Why did he put death first? Chronologically, we do our living first and then our dying. But I think Montaigne meant that we have to understand where we’re going, what our life aims are, before we can understand what we ought to do day-to-day.
Once we recognize our mortality, we instinctively long to do something or be someone who will outlive death. That striving for immortality—to have or be something or someone so worthwhile that it will last forever—has been the catalyst for so many of humanity’s great achievements. Achilles’ desire to live on in memory drives the Iliad. The restless ambition of Raphael and Michelangelo, competing to decorate the Vatican, gave us some of the most exquisite art ever. I’m sure that same desire at least partly fuels the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s incredible philanthropy.
But there’s a dark side. Great artists and authors aren’t the only ones full of this longing for immortality. Dictators and tyrants want to make their names last forever, too. Alexander the Great named more than one city after himself. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s tomb has been venerated in Moscow for 90 years.
So if we share in this longing for permanence—and I believe to some degree we all do—what can we do to make sure it leads us in the right direction? How can we reach new heights of goodness, not just greatness? How can we be remembered as men and women of grace and love—along the lines of Nelson Mandela, William Wilberforce, Frederick Douglass, Mother Teresa, Eric Liddell, Elizabeth Browning?
The drive to do great things is morally neutral—it can lead us to wonderful deeds of service or to horrors. Therefore, the real test of character—how those heroes demonstrated who they were—is in the small choices of each day. As David Foster Wallace’s fantastic 2005 commencement address reminded us, we reveal who we truly are by how we treat the cashier at Morton Williams and our siblings. Treating all people gallantly and graciously, in accordance with their precious human dignity, is actually the best way to make an impact on the world.
Love, true love, the love that seeks the good of the beloved, the love that makes costly sacrifices, is one of the ways that we can know transcendence. Ask your mom or dad what it felt like to hold you for the first time, and I suspect they will try to describe something so moving that it’s beyond human language. Parental love is only one type of love. The face, voice, and trust of a good friend can also make us feel that we’re not alone in the universe and that we have eternal purpose and significance.
And though so many of us have only seen romantic love as fleeting and frustrating, it doesn’t have to be that way. This Valentine’s Day could be an occasion for a real date, an evening of grace, beauty, and conversation. And maybe it could be the start of something lasting, something permanent. Building a lasting relationship, loving marriage, and flourishing family are wonderful ways to leave a legacy of lasting worth.
Luke Foster is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. He is the president of the Veritas Forum and a member of Columbia Faith and Action. Foster the Core runs alternate Fridays.
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