Today I want to say a few words about emotional resilience especially in teenagers, although what I’m about to say can help, I think, people of all ages.
As a context for my comments, I will draw from a sacred text that most if not all of you are familiar with: Harry Potter. We are entering his world, replete with wizards, dangers, and magic wands.
As I do this, I must acknowledge up front that Harry Potter’s author, J.K. Rowling, has upset many of us with some of her comments about transgender people. Clearly, wisdom and unwisdom can occupy the same mind and same human heart. It’s true of us all.
For now, though, we explore the undeniable richness of her famous book series. In particular, we hone in on the third book in the series: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Listen to this excerpt:
The staffroom, a long, paneled room full of old, mismatched chairs, was empty except for one teacher. Professor Snape was sitting in the low armchair, and he looked around as the class filed in. His eyes were glittering and there was a nasty sneer playing around his mouth. As Professor Lupin came in and made to close the door behind him, Snape said, “Leave it open, Lupin. I’d rather not witness this.” He got to his feet and strode past the class, his black robes billowing behind him. At the doorway he turned on his heel and said, “Possibly no one’s warned you, Lupin, but this class contains Neville Longbottom. I would advise you not to entrust him with anything difficult. Not unless Miss Granger is hissing instructions in his ear.”
Neville went scarlet. Harry glared at Snape; it was bad enough that he bullied Neville in his own classes, let alone doing it in front of other teachers. Professor Lupin had raised his eyebrows.“I was hoping that Neville would assist me with the first stage of the operation,” he said, “and I am sure he will perform it admirably.” Neville’s face went, if possible, even redder. Snape’s lip curled, but he left, shutting the door with a snap.
‘Now, then,’ said Professor Lupin, beckoning the class towards the end of the room, where there was nothing except an old wardrobe in which the teachers kept their spare robes. As Professor Lupin went to stand next to it, the wardrobe gave a sudden wobble, banging off the wall. “Nothing to worry about,” said Professor Lupin calmly, as a few people jumped backwards in alarm. “There’s a Boggart in there.”
Most people seemed to feel that this was something to worry about. Neville gave Professor Lupin a look of pure terror, and Seamus Finnegan eyed the now rattling doorknob apprehensively. “Boggarts like dark, enclosed spaces,” said Professor Lupin. “Wardrobes, the gap beneath beds, the cupboards under sinks….” “So the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is a boggart?”
Hermione put up her hand. “It’s a shape shifter,” she said. “It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most.” “Couldn’t have put it better myself,” said Professor Lupin.
That’s our excerpt from Harry Potter this morning. Professor Lupin is giving his class a practical Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson—how to deal with boggarts—and this is exactly what comes to mind as I think about the spirituality of teens and, in fact, the spirituality of all of us, no matter what our age happens to be. Spirituality is closely tied to the fears and uncertainties in our lives—the inadequacies, the sense of helplessness, the lack and failure of control. So spirituality becomes a way by which we learn how to cope. It incorporates all that is involved in being able to face the boggarts of life with serenity, courage, and wisdom.
Let’s touch on some of those boggarts, first, before we talk about “the how” of facing them effectively.
Many of the boggarts that teens face have to do with the question of identity. Teens are living out this question, this search for who they are, in a larger social context pressurized with demands on their attention, their money, and their time. Pressures coming at them from social media, from their peer group, from school, from home and family. Can I make an A? Can I get a date? Can I get a job? How do I deal with my parents’ problems? How do I deal with my own? Can I look like a model or a TV character or a rock star? Can I make the team? Do I have friends? Are they the right friends? Can I trust them? What do I do about that teacher who doesn’t like me? What do I want to be when I grow up? Do I have the right things? Do I like the right things? Do I walk right? Am I popular? Am I OK?
Does somebody love me?
All such questions, filled with boggart energy. And then there are the boggarts teens face which we all face, because we all live in the same world. For everyone, climate change is a frightful boggart, and so is gun violence. So is racism. So is war.
Would you agree if I said that capitalism can also be a source of boggarts? What I mean is that capitalism wants to never stop growing, and its way of doing that is to create within each and every person a consumer identity. Every time we see or hear an advertisement for some product–every time we see someone living capitalism’s ideal life on Instagram or Tik Tok–a boggart rises up out of the darkness of our personal insecurities, triggering fear that we are truly missing out unless we do this or buy that…. So we do this, and we buy that, and we find ourselves living lives that are to some degree false to our real needs, lives which are not sustainable for ourselves or the planet.
And thus, the need for a Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson, on how to face every boggart, no matter what its source may be. Here’s what Professor Lupin has to say. He says, “The charm that repels a boggart is simple, yet it requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you find amusing. We will practice the charm without wands first. After me, please…” And this is where Professor Lupin asks the class to repeat the word, riddikulus!
Pull out your wands and say that word with me….
Professor Lupin goes on to say, “’It’s always best to have company when you are dealing with a boggart. He becomes confused. Which should he become, a headless corpse or a flesh-eating slug? I once saw a boggart make that very mistake—tried to frighten two people at once and turned himself into half a slug. Not remotely frightening.’”
This is brilliant. It’s just that teens can struggle with isolation. Teens can struggle with loneliness. I know I did. And the isolation and loneliness can block the magic, it can sap all the focus and energy and force of mind needed to shout out riddikulus! in a way that works. So, friendship plays a key role in teenage spirituality. It’s just easier to face down a boggart when there’s someone to talk to, someone to listen, someone to help you think through your ideas and see things from various angles. Friendship is key.
I once heard a coming of age youth say, in his credo, “I find holiness in others, and a group is possibly the holiest place for me.” Beautiful. It’s always best to have company when you are dealing with a boggart.
Adults included. NOT adults like Professor Snape, who is insufferably impatient with his teenage students and who, I suspect, sees them as alien, utterly strange, coming from a different planet, not worth his time or attention. But adults like Professor Lupin, who knows that his teenagers are more similar to adults than different; who expresses interest in them and connects with them in consistent, caring ways; who sets healthy boundaries in his classroom even as he never stops letting them know that he loves them; who talks to them about stuff and listens.
Did you know that in a recent major study of teenage spirituality, the researchers discovered that in many cases, their interview represented the first time that any adult had ever asked them what they believed in and how it mattered in their life? The researchers remarked, “Very many seemed caught off-balance by our simple questions, uncertain about what we were asking, at a loss to know how to respond.” But just contrast this to the Harry Potter story, the way Professor Lupin is in a real, regular conversation with his teenage students, giving them the tools they need to face a difficult world. Sharing knowledge and skills that they don’t know. The students LOVED Professor Lupin—our teenagers hunger for relationships just like this.
Adults have a critical role to play in the spirituality of our teens. I’m so grateful to the parents and mentors in our congregation who have been the Professor Lupins among us. So grateful for the leadership of our Youth Coordinator Brian Lutz.
Let’s have more of it. So much is at stake.
The spirituality of teens. It’s a spirituality of facing down the inevitable fears and challenges of life, some of which are unique to teens, some of which people of all ages have. It’s a spirituality of community and friendship. It’s a spirituality that adults have a critical role to play in. And finally, it’s a spirituality of courage and good humor.
You know, like all sacred scripture, I take Harry Potter seriously without talking it literally. That’s what I do. Fact is, we can shout riddikulus! all day long at the things that we fear—at worrisome stuff happening at home or at school, at the question of who I want to be when I grow up, at climate change, at gun violence, at war, at consumerism run rampant—but this in itself won’t force the problems to change shape or go away. Yet the laughter changes us.
That’s the point.
Consider a story about a thirteen-year-old named Lindy. Lindy was terminally ill with cancer. She knew fear first hand, she knew the pain, the tears. Yet she wasn’t going to allow herself to drown in all that. The story is that she was going in for surgery, where the doctors would remove her stomach tumor. Risky procedure. When it was time for Lindy to be prepped, and her garments removed, the doctors found a note that she had secretly taped to her tummy. This is what the note read: “Dear Doctors: While you’re taking out my tumor, please remove the mole on my nose. I’m going to be a movie star, and that thing has just got to go. See you soon!”
Do you see what Lindy did here? She just said riddikulus! to her fears. She’s not dismissing them, as if to say that they reflect nothing real. She’s not taking a defeatist perspective, as if to say that there’s no hope. She’s taking a humor perspective, saying yes, the fears are real, but I can face them, I am equal to them, YES I CAN, I can rise above them and get to a place of calm, from which I can act more effectively and appropriately.
That’s what I wish for our youth today and for all of us. That we have that YES I CAN attitude.
The boggarts rise, but we are in the company of friends;
we are surrounded by the teaching and support of parents and mentors;
and we have a magic word to say.
Raise your magic wands and say it with me: