What We Can Learn from Harry Potter

By Laura Sheahen

The megapopular Harry Potter books don't touch on religion, but they do reflect a consistent moral framework. Like most children's books, the series teaches lessons many religions would agree on: Don't kill, don't lie, and so on. But beyond that are more subtle life lessons that can help kids--and adults--navigate relationships, disappointments, and loss.

Begin learning the life lessons of Harry Potter.

Laura Sheahen is Senior Religion Editor at Beliefnet.

Beware of Pompous People

No one would deny that the series' obvious villains--Voldemort, Draco Malfoy, and arguably Snape--are dangerous. But it's the conceited secondary characters--like Gilderoy Lockhart, Percy Weasley, and Cornelius Fudge--who often do just as much damage as the true bad guys. Their self-satisfied bumbling leaves Harry and his friends exposed to the basilisk, an impostor Mad-Eye Moody, and Voldemort himself.

In the sixth book, Harry was wise to steer clear of the status-seeking Professor Slughorn, who wants to draw Harry into his clique. In Harry's world as in real life, serious evildoers are always a threat, but stuck-up people wreak plenty of havoc.

Stay True to Your Nerdy Friends

From the moment Harry first met hapless, round-faced Neville Longbottom (who was searching for his lost toad), he's been kind to the timid Gryffindor. Harry has been loyal to daffy Luna Lovegood and to Dobby, the often irritating and unconventional elf. And Harry defended his best friend Ron Weasley when everyone else was furious with him for his poor Quidditch skills.

All these characters have stuck by Harry in his hour of need, in some cases saving his life. The lesson: No matter how tiresomely they rave about Crumple-Horned Snorkacks or make you examine plants that squirt Stinksap, don't disown your true friends.

Realize That Your Family Is More Important Than You Think

Ron Weasley's brothers overshadow him, and his parents often embarrass him. Neville Longbottom's grandmother is starchy and dictatorial, and his parents have been driven insane by Voldemort's followers. Harry's aunt, uncle, and cousin actively oppress him--and his parents are dead. Yet for all three boys, family holds the key to mysteries. Ron's parents and brothers are in the Order of the Phoenix, protecting Ron and Harry in ways they learn only late in book five.

Neville's parents were also in the Order, and he has a strange connection to Harry--he was born in the same month. Harry's parents died to save him, yet live on in important ways (see Lesson 6). And his horsey, nasty Aunt Petunia is grudgingly part of a secret blood spell protecting him from Voldemort. In other words, even when we feel distant from our families, they may be helping us in ways we don't know.

Speak Your Pain

Harry's refusal to share his fears and feelings, or ask for help, once seemed like a frustrating tic. In the past few books, however, it's become clear that it's his tragic flaw--one of Shakespearean proportions. In the early books, it's worrisome when he doesn't alert Dumbledore that his scar is hurting; if he did, the powerful Hogwarts headmaster might know when Voldemort is plotting something. In "Goblet of Fire," it's maddening when Harry doesn't tell Neville that he needs a way to survive under water, since Neville knows about a plant that makes humans grow gills. And in "Order of the Phoenix," it's heartbreaking to contemplate the alternate future lost when Harry doesn't use Sirius' mirror to talk to his godfather--or warn him of danger.

In every case, Harry would have saved time, trouble, and maybe even a life if he had opened up to those who care about him. In each book, despite the rising stakes, he thinks that he'll just worry people or that they won't be able to help him anyway.

Assuming he knows how people will react--and hiding the truth in a misguided attempt to protect them--is Harry's great failing. When Harry does talk to his friends, they often are able to help him (as when Professor Lupin teaches him to repel dementors) or allay his fears (as when Ginny reassures Harry that he couldn't have been possessed by Voldemort). But when he keeps secrets, Harry makes himself and others miserable and more vulnerable.

Don't Fear Death...

"There is nothing worse than death," says Voldemort in book five. "You are quite wrong," Dumbledore replies. "Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness." Death is what Harry's nemesis most fears; his thirst for immortality drives all his actions, from seeking the sorcerer's stone to stealing Harry's blood for a revivification potion. Calling themselves Death Eaters, Voldemort's followers use the Dark Arts to feed off other people's pain and death and grow stronger.

The Dark Lord's followers may think they have power over death. But in reality, all of them are trying to prolong their own lives by gruesome and selfish means. In the books, characters who try to escape death turn into moral monsters (or, in less extreme cases, into laughable ghosts--like Nearly Headless Nick and Professor Binns). Characters who are willing to die for others--like Harry, his parents, Ron, and Dumbledore--often save themselves or their friends. As Dumbledore says, death is not something to be feared and dodged at all costs, but "the next great adventure."

...Because Love Is Stronger Than Death

The deaths in the Harry Potter books are heart-wrenching and ever present; Cedric, Harry's parents, Sirius, and Dumbledore are not forgotten. Death changes those left behind: Harry hears his parents in visions and sees them in the Mirror of Erised; Luna and other bereaved students can see thestrals, beasts invisible to their luckier friends; Dumbledore's phoenix sings a strange new song of lament.

But the dead are never really gone. As Harry grieves Sirius, Luna reminds him of the mysterious murmurs behind the veil in the Department of Mysteries, reassuring him that they'll see their loved ones again. And Harry's dead parents actively protect him--his mother through the lasting power of her self-sacrificing spell, his father as the patronus Prongs. Dumbledore's spirit, too, may live on as a portrait in the headmaster's office, watching over Harry and the school. Though no longer with Harry in the flesh, their love continues to guide and guard him as he prepares for his final showdown with Voldemort.

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