2017 marked ten years since the last Harry Potter book came out, and twenty years since the first. For the entirety of my reading life, Harry Potter has been the defining story of my generation. We grew up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, with midnight book release parties, and with a rich culture of fan-made nonsense. We also grew up with book banning, adult hand-wringing, and one of the most potent anti-fascist allegories of the 21st Century. Harry Potter is (unfortunately) more relevant now than ever. Here are a few of the life lessons I picked up from Harry that I will take with me to 2018.
Of course, having read and re-read the books many, many times as a kid and a teen, I’d already learned a lot from the wizarding world. I already knew that love is the greatest power of all, and that Hermione is the low-key, long suffering hero of the series. But returning to the books last year, so much of Harry Potter took on new meaning. The Ministry of Magic’s blatant disregard for facts, Harry’s growing mistrust of authority, and even J.K. Rowling’s controversial Twitter feed all affected me more in 2017 than ever before. Here’s what the series still has to say, and the life lessons I’ll be taking with me to 2018:
It’s OK to be critical of what you love
This is both a narrative and a meta-narrative theme of the Potterverse. In the books, Harry must learn again and again that his idols and parental figures are not perfect or infallible. James Potter was a bully, Sirius was a bigot and a pretty terrible guardian, and Dumbledore used to date a fascist. In the real world, many fans have been disappointed with J.K. Rowling’s comments on the Grindelwald casting in the Fantastic Beasts movies, with her poorly researched Pottermore content, and with her George Lucas-ing of her own story. But if Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that it is OK and even imperative to be critical of what you love. We can love the books and have a problem with Rowling’s views, or with the way that certain characters are portrayed. Loving a story and being critical of that story are not mutually exclusive.
Always question authority
The Harry Potter books are pretty clear on this point: just because someone has power, it doesn’t mean that they should be listened to. Question teachers, news sources, and politicians. But just as importantly, question the authority figures you love and trust. Lupin, for instance, is the only good teacher in the whole dang series, and someone who understands prejudice firsthand. And yet, when Hermione tries to talk to him about House-Elf rights, Lupin brushes her off and defends the status quo. The books remind us all to keep asking questions, even when it’s uncomfortable.
There are many different kinds of bravery
Gryffindors come in all different flavors. Even Snape, a mopey sad sack who’s mean to children, proves himself to be a brave (if mopey) double agent. Last year, between political burnout and run-of-the-mill young person anxiety, it was helpful to remember that there are many different kinds of bravery. This year, I need that reminder, too. Characters like Neville and Luna are still brave and supportive of their friends, even when they aren’t rushing headlong into danger.
Young people can make a difference
This is maybe not the best time to be a young person. We’re saddled with debt, we have no job security, everything costs more, the planet is dying, and Baby Boomers are mad at us for not buying enough diamonds. Harry Potter is a constant reminder that old age is not synonymous with wisdom, and that young people are never entirely powerless.
The sorting hat is not all-powerful
Look, I love personality quizzes and zodiac signs and Myers-Briggs types just as much as the next nerd. But, as much as we love our house scarves, the sorting hat does not define us. Harry and Dumbledore frequently remind us that it’s our choices that define who we are. So don’t limit yourself even if you think you’re not Ravenclaw smart. Don’t assume you’re a coward just because you’re not a Gryffindor. And don’t use being a Slytherin as an excuse to be a huge jerk all the time.
Check your own motives, even when you think you’re helping
Hermione usually has her heart in the right place with projects like S.P.E.W. But she also takes it upon herself to tell the House-Elves what they want, instead of actually listening to them. 2017 was a frustrating year, and many of us were looking for ways to help support causes we care about. But it’s always good to take a moment and make sure that we’re helping in the most helpful way, not just in the way that feels the most personally satisfying.
Small choices can have a big impact
I felt helpless quite a few times over the past year. I mean, yes, calling congress is important, but it’s hardly the most satisfying way to make a difference in the world. But in Harry Potter, it’s often Harry’s smallest acts of goodwill that come back to save him in the end. Sparing Peter Pettigrew, or giving Dobby a sock, or befriending Luna Lovegood—all of these minor moments ended up playing a major role later in the series. The smallest of good deeds can tip the scales, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time.
It’s OK to be angry
I’m always surprised when people say they don’t like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. For me, it’s one of the most pivotal books in the series: it shows a Harry who’s just so freaking angry. It’s not his best look ever, but it is understandable. Rowling makes it clear that anger is an OK reaction to have when it comes to trauma or stress or a horrifying, corrupt government.
…but you don’t have to be angry alone
Even at his angstiest, Harry still relied on his friends. Sure, he shouldn’t have yelled at them quite so much. But the lesson that you don’t have to suffer in silence has always stayed with me. Last year, I was especially grateful to have friends I could vent to, instead of bottling up all that anger for twelve months straight.
Stories still matter
Back at the beginning of last year, when most of us were still processing election results and screaming senselessly into the void, a lot of people leaned on Harry Potter for support. For some, turning to a kid’s book in a time of political strife seemed silly. But for a lot of us, this singular, imperfect story still carries a lot of weight. It’s no exaggeration to say that Harry Potter is one of the core cultural touchstones of our generation. And if we’re going to have one generational story that represents our values, at least it’s one that stands for empathy, resistance, and love above all.