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Angela Tilby: Prince Harry has choices — and hope

21 May 2021


The Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sussex at the Natural History Museum, in London, in 2019

The Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sussex at the Natural History Museum, in London, in 2019

I HEARD part of Prince Harry’s podcast about his pain growing up in the Royal Family while I was driving through one of Portsmouth’s bleakest, most cramped, and most neglected housing estates in the rain. My immediate reaction was to splutter at the royal personage’s distress in comparison with the misery of growing up in a concrete box.

But then empathy kicked in, together with the recognition that there is no escaping the fact the childhood pain has a huge effect on a person’s life. For some, it is creative. Great lives, as Matthew Parris has argued recently, can take root in trauma. For others, the wounds become so much part of their identity that they are permanently handicapped by their sense of victimhood.

I don’t think that this is true of Prince Harry. Yet he is right, of course, that the pain experienced by children is often transferred from their parents, and their parents before them. Deuteronomy and Exodus speak a very human truth when they declare that God visits iniquity to the third and fourth generation. But it is also true that earlier generations may have developed ways of living well in spite of pain that their descendants may lack. Fatalism, a sense of “God’s will”, and a readiness to embrace personal sacrifice were not uncommon coping strategies when Prince Harry’s grandmother was growing up.

On the other hand, our greater readiness to acknowledge mental distress and the various supports that are now available may open up the chance of fulfilment for those whose forebears had no such hope. Prince Harry’s main gripe about his childhood is that he had no choice — no more, he suggests, than his father or grandfather had.

The reality is, though, that we do have choice in how we respond, even to painful circumstances. As Dumbledore said to another Harry in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices . . . that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Choice is never as free as it seems. We do not have a palette of infinite possibilities from which to paint, in spite of what some pundits might tell us. Choice may reveal who we are, but it does not bestow boundless freedom. More often, it opens a path to new responsibilities.

The Christian notion of vocation has something to offer here. The Spirit, who searches the depths of God, also knows the depths of the wounded self and works to bring about a new, unique alignment. Or, as the American writer Frederick Buechner has put it, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Prince Harry has already shown an instinct for where that place might be, especially in his championing of wounded and disabled service personnel. He should persist.

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