Finding light to resist Dementors

View of Manhattan from my office window after the storm (Susan Rose Francois)

The other day, as I was looking out my office window, which normally provides a priceless view of Manhattan across the Hudson River, I instead saw nothing but mist and swirling dark fog. The city and bridge were gone, nowhere to be seen, replaced by a vast soup of gray.

It was just one of those days.

Weather aside, so far it seems like 2019 is filled with more than its share of negativity and gloom-inducing news. It can sometimes simply be overwhelming.

Maybe it's just me, but our collective capacity to spot joy and hope in the proverbial mist feels more limited than usual for some reason. It's almost as if we've had the happiness drained out of us.

The image that keeps coming back to me is that of the Dementors in Harry Potter. "Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth," writes J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. "They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can't see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself — soulless and evil. You'll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life." Muggles, for those uninitiated to the world imagined by Rowling, are ordinary nonmagical folks.

The Dementor image is the best I can come up with to describe the general malaise I sense all around us these days.

If you're on social media, whether the debate is political or the latest iteration of the never-ending controversies on Twitter, the rush to judgment multiplies near magical speed as we seek to describe complex situations in 280 characters or less.

Even in my own real-life circles of generally good people, whether it's stories of elementary students bullying or lashing out in classrooms or even gossip among adults who should certainly know better, the daily challenge of operating out of our best selves looms larger than I remember.

My intention here is not to debate the reality of evil, although I certainly believe evil exists. Rather, I'm trying to grapple with what I am experiencing these days and help discern the way forward to goodness.

In our culture, we are leery of speaking of evil, even though we are sometimes quick to throw the descriptor around for certain political figures or those who commit acts that are beyond the pale of understanding, such as serial killers. I sometimes wonder if our inability to discuss evil outside of the rare person we name as truly evil leads to an inability to sense the ways, big and small, that we contribute to an environment where evil can take root and thrive. It's hard to see the way forward when we don't admit we are complicit in the first place.

Recently, I had a conversation with an acquaintance who is from Kenya. She was sharing some of her own cultural understanding of evil and the way she believes it manifests in her local community. We were, I think, both trying to describe the same experience that I can only give voice to by using the Dementor metaphor. From her cultural perspective, however, she was more likely to use words like evil deeds and describe actual examples of land grabbing, theft, deception and other trickery at home in Kenya.

I was reminded of our conversation when I read Sr. Mary Lilly Driciru's recent column on Global Sisters Report describing a prayer procession in a village in Uganda.

Sister Mary Lilly writes: "The sisters believe the village is truly being overtaken by social evil and decided to challenge the forces of evil that had descended upon the village with a monthly prayer procession around the town. ... Every last Wednesday of the month, the sisters lead members of the local community and residents of the Bishop Asili center and persist in prayer in response to the violence and decadence; for the last few months, there has been relative peace and serenity in the village. They attribute all this to the intervention of God's almighty power."

Would we do that in our U.S. context? Probably not. Yet these sisters, I think, are onto something.

Let's return to the imaginative world of Rowling. Fans of Harry Potter may remember what spell is used to send the Dementors on their way, the Patronus charm. As the character Professor Lupin teaches Harry, you have to concentrate "with all your might, on a single, very happy memory." In this way, you project "the very things that the Dementor feeds upon — hope, happiness, the desire to survive."

It's the old story, told by each generation and culture in its own way, a truth we know yet find hard to believe or actualize — goodness overcomes evil.

As I've been praying my way through this figurative fog, I've been asking myself — how can I project hope, happiness and goodness, rather than succumb to the multiplication of negative thoughts, gloom and despair? In my conversations and actions, in the real world or online, which side am I on?

If I truly believe in the promise of God's creative love, the power of redemption, and the sacredness of life in all its forms, then the path forward seems clear. I believe that the light will break through the darkness. All that seems impossible to us is of course possible for God. When we come together, we have the choice to create communion or sow division. We can resist the metaphoric Dementors of our lives and choose to spread the good news of the Gospel instead. Tomorrow is another day; the sun will once again shine and remind us that we are in this together.

[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]

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