In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets , Dumbledore tells Harry, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” As Potterheads well know, the venerable headmaster’s words often hold lessons not just for getting through the difficult years of school, but for life. At first glance, it’s the sort of thing that an elder tells a young person, and the sort of thing a young person tends to dismiss. But it’s also the sort of thing that needs to be unpacked, thought about, and internalised.
We tend to think of abilities as features of personality, either innate or acquired. We may describe them as talents, skills, or aptitudes, but in general we are talking about what we are good at or can do relatively easily and well. Some of us are good with language, or numbers, or art, music or sports, and while excellence in any of these areas demands practice and persistence, we come to think of these as part of who we are. Thinking of ourselves as having certain abilities can be a definite confidence booster, and there is something to be said for recognising — and doing — what we are good at.
But the first part of Dumbledore’s statement complicates it all somewhat. If our abilities — the building blocks of our persona — don’t show who we are, then what does? Our sense of self draws from a complex set of features, some of which (depending on our beliefs) are taken to be hereditary and others a product of environment, opportunity and nurturing. I’m not going into the big question of how and why these “abilities” come to be, but let’s assume for the moment that we have them and are aware of them. So, then, how do our choices — and not abilities — determine who we are?
Looking at it this way moves us away from the deterministic, or fatalistic, approach that makes one say: “Oh, that’s the way I am, so I can’t help it.” Or: “I’m made this way, I can’t do any better/different.” Dumbledore would see this as a cop-out. Instead, we need to look at how we use those abilities at any given time. You may be an excellent communicator, gifted with the ability to move people with your words. You could choose a career that uses this ability to speak or write in a way that educates and clarifies the world for others. Or you could choose to work with words in a way that persuades in not so straightforward ways. Those who possess extraordinary physical strength can use it either to create or destroy — it’s the same muscles that are used in both cases, to different ends.
Choice doesn’t only have to do with abilities of this kind — the very possibility of choice also contains within it several directions in which one might go, each with a different set of implications. It’s worthwhile considering what different options mean — for yourself and for others (and, where pertinent, for the world in general). Our choices may be constrained by many external factors, but we need to get away from the idea that they are constrained by “the way we are”! If there’s one thing in the world we can change, it is, possibly, the way we are.
The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus . firstname.lastname@example.org