On Harry Potter, and Good Men Dying Young

There are spoilers here if you haven’t read or seen Harry Potter movies and books.  But if you haven’t, why you’re wasting your time reading this instead of that I’ll never know.

Last week I went to scout camp.

I’m not the Scoutmaster, only the Assistant Scoutmaster.  Ordinarily, the Scoutmaster is the one that takes the kids on the weeklong camp (with the Assistant and some parents pinch-hitting for a few days), but this time he couldn’t.  The Scoutmaster’s name is Lynn Sorensen, and he’s dying.

About 16 months ago, Lynn was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and given three months to live.  At about the three month mark last year, he was so far from dead that he took the scouts to Treasure Mountain in the Grand Tetons.  I went for three days, and was swapped out by another leader at that point.  Lynn was not quite his usual self, but pretty close.  He made it the whole week, and his doctor said he was better physically afterward than he was before he went.  This year, though, it became obvious a couple of months back that he wasn’t going to be able to go.  I was given the opportunity to take the job, and I jumped at it.  Yes, things are hard for us, but how often does one get a chance to carry a burden for such a man?

Because one must have two leaders at all times with the boys, I found another leader in my son Alexander, who is 19, and is largely just sitting there consuming resources (and waiting for his mission call – which came while we were at camp – to Buenos Aires).  It was an irreplaceable opportunity for us to interact not so much as father and son, but as peers.  For that alone, I would have been very grateful for the opportunity, but as it was, it came with a whole lot more.  Lynn was on everyone’s mind pretty close to all the time.  We missed him.  The troop voted to rename itself “Lynn’s Boys” in his honor, and we honored our Lynn by bringing home every award there was in camp.

Going as we did with death on our minds, it seems a bit surreal that while we were there, a scout was struck by lightning during one of the most violent thunderstorms I’ve ever seen.  He never regained consciousness and died on that hill, the same hill we were camping on.  One of our scouts was at our campsite with Alexander and they were about 75 yards away from the strike.  I was across the valley with the Camp Director, and we all knew something terrible was possible from that bolt.  We all heard it.  We knew which one it was.

The whole camp knew that something grim was happening, just from the reactions of the normally calm camp staff.  They weren’t freaking out, but they got the same look I remember seeing on the faces of the airport guards in Rome when I was there during a terrorist attack in 1985.  Serious.  Tightly focused.  There is a sort of squaring of the shoulders, a realization that what is coming will likely test them.  That it will be painful, and also that it must be borne.  It was clear long before the Life Flight ‘copter came over that the odds were not good of any happy outcome from the incident, and when the chopper stayed on the ground for almost an hour, we knew.

The unfortunate scout wasn’t screwing around.  He wasn’t off by himself.  He wasn’t playing golf, or even fishing, sticking a metal rod up in the air.  And he wasn’t by any possible stretch the highest point in the area.  Our campsite was higher than his by 75-100 feet, and we had metal pavilion poles sticking up out of it.  So what happened was sheer, raw, uncomplicated bad luck.

We gathered the boys around later that night in the safety of the truck and were quite blunt with them.  People die, we said.  Everyone dies.  It might take a year, or ten years, or a hundred years, but everyone’s jug of milk has an expiration date on it.  You don’t know what that date is.  You can make it fractionally less likely to be soon by doing certain things and avoiding others, but you can’t say for certain one way or the other when it will be, no matter who you are.  Lynn Sorensen, one of the world’s most productive and positive people, is dying of cancer.  David Rayborn, a twelve-year-old kid out at a scout camp doing what he’s supposed to be doing, gets hit by lightning and never goes home.  I don’t think it’s actually random, but the Intelligence that is capable of predicting it is as far beyond ours as the sun is beyond a candle, so to us, it’s a toss of the dice.  Hiding from this fact is a terrible waste.  It has to be faced.

We were in a place to face it.  So we did.  We talked about it.  The kids weren’t afraid – twelve- and thirteen-year-olds think they’re immortal – but they were somber.  They understood that they had a choice, to live the time they had or to die without having lived at all.  To be what they meant to be, all the time, so that they would never exit stage right with their lines unsaid or their part unplayed.  Dedicate yourself to the things that matter.  Kiss your mother and tell her you love her.  Hug your Dad.  Be kind to your brothers and sisters.  Then square your shoulders and go.

The night we returned, my son and I, we went to see Harry Potter 7.2.  We’re Potter fans, if not necessarily Rowling fans, and we had been looking forward to this last movie for quite a while.  I don’t mind confessing that I wept openly at parts of it.  There were, as you might imagine, a few things that seemed to bring the movie uncomfortably close to home.  The theme, it seemed to me, was a familiar one.  In fact, I thought I remembered hearing it (not quite so well said, or as dramatically) at our campfire on Wednesday night, and Thursday night, and Friday.

Now, I know there are parents out there that are not fans of Harry Potter.  On the side of the political spectrum I inhabit, and especially on the religious edge I frequent, there are parents that think that exposing their children to witchcraft is a bad thing.  And so it would be, if there were anything even remotely like real witchcraft in Harry Potter.  The magical universe is a joke.  Anything that creates Bertie Bott’s EveryFlavor Beans and Jumping Chocolate Frogs as an introduction to the culture is not serious.  You could easily substitute ray guns for wands and the stories would make about the same amount of sense.  There isn’t any serious magic ever performed.  I absolutely flat-back guarantee you there are more kids that lost their way religiously because of the weird and silly Jedi cult than ever did because of Harry Potter.

On the contrary, what is actually taught in the Potter Saga is courage, selflessness, resourcefulness, and commitment.  When has there ever been a tale that was more supportive of study and discipline?  More encouraging of education and preparation?  Less dismissive of the consequences of shoddy work and goofing off?

But it’s so much better than that.  Look not at the characters, but what makes the characters.  Draco Malfoy, warped and twisted because of his father’s ambition.  Hermione Granger, who is the focal point of bullying and abuse because…her parents are muggles.  Ron Weasley, who forms the rallying point for Harry and Hermione because…he has a family.  A real one.  And Harry himself, to whom the most important people in the world are his parents and his godfather.  In every major character, Dumbledore, Snape, Sirius Black, even Voldemort himself, there are the potent effects of family and parents, for good and ill.

And in the end, it is the mothers that save the day.  Molly Weasley blasts Bellatrix LeStrange.  Narcissa Malfoy, out of love for her son, saves Harry’s life. And it is Harry’s mother, arguably the most important character in the entire series, that is the crux of the entire final episodal arc, and she’s never been alive for even a second of the entire 4000-page epic.  Her love for Harry is shown to be the most powerful force in all the magical world.  Where, I beg you, where is the message in this you do not want your children to hear?

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”  – Of Other Worlds

Soundly killed they may be, and are, and in the meantime the book and the movie look a lot like our lives.  Here we have Sirius Black, killed by…well, we don’t know.  He’s dead mostly because he loves Harry.  Tonks and Remus Lupin, killed defending the children of Hogwarts.  Fred Weasley is dead, too, alone of the Weasley family, and Bill is scarred for life.  Good people that we care about and that didn’t do anything wrong.  One here of this group and one there of that.  No rhyme.  No reason.  But in the greater sense, in the largest possible sense, in the only perspective that works, it doesn’t matter.

Because I heard echoing through the theater the voice of Nevill Longbottom, my personal favorite, telling me and my scouts and those poor parents of that unlucky boy that the good do not die in vain.  They live.  They live because they do that which they came to do, they fight their fight, and they go, as Dumbledore said, “on”.  Only Voldemort, the beast seeking for eternal life, would, even if he found it, have no life at all, for all his works were vanity.  None would remember him, or mourn him, or make a song for him.  His life would mean nothing, and his death less than nothing.

Not so with David Rayborn, and not with Lynn Sorensen.  Not so with you, and not with me, this I swear.

Read the books.  See the movies.  Kiss your mother and hug your Dad.

And then square your shoulders and go.

7 Responses to “On Harry Potter, and Good Men Dying Young”

  • Jill says:

    Good thing I’m coming in late tomorrow. It’ll take that long for me to regain my composure.

  • LeAnne Herdman says:

    Wow. This was such a powerful and profound piece of writing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Things happen in our lives that remind us to make the most of our time, because we never know how long we or our loved ones have. I agree with your thoughts about Harry Potter, and loved that quote from C.S. Lewis.

  • Chris Jones says:

    Thank you both. We had a Court of Honor last night at the home of our dear Lynn. So much good is being mined from what is, undeniably, a sad thing.

  • Chris Jones says:

    As a note for interested readers, Lynn Sorensen died this morning, July 31, at 2am.

    God be with you, my dear friend.

  • Bernagene Shay says:

    Beautiful! I am friends with Kathryn and she posted this. Thank you! I am so sorry for your loss but he is clearly with you forever. Square your shoulders and go. :)

  • LeAnne Herdman says:

    I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and also for his family.

  • T. Harmon says:

    Insightful and inspiring! Thank you for this remarkable post.

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