The Girl on Fire Finally Gets Burned

The coals of the firey Hunger Games trilogy are still smouldering on my iPad, several weeks after finishing it. Reading it was an intense experience, and one that made me think a lot. One of the most fascinating aspects was witnessing the slow, sad, mental breakdown of the heroin of the story, Katniss Everdeen. A passionate, intense teenager in a violent, unjust world, she struggles to fight against the repression of her state, and becomes increasingly embroiled in the plans of the rebels to take over from the sadistic President Snow.

For a long time Katniss is increasingly consumed by anger. It takes getting literally burned for her to realize it. That the fire of hatred burns not only the one hated, but the one who hates.

That being willing to do anything to destroy your enemy in fact destroys yourself, because it transforms you into them. That the greatest danger is perhaps not death after all, but losing yourself–what is essential to being you, your best part. It’s like Peeta said before the Hunger Games in book 1, that he wanted to die himself, instead of being corrupted by the Games. He didn’t want to be turned into a killer, a monster, someone willing to do whatever it took to achieve their goal, like the career tributes. At first Katniss can’t understand this way of thinking. All she can focus on is survival, for the sake of her little sister, and unwell mother, for whom she feels responsible.

Later she realizes to her horror, that the deeper into war you get, the more the line between ally and enemy blurs, the more the distinction between right and wrong fades, the more the shining idea of peace gets stained by so many splatters of blood.

In the end, so often betrayed and haunted by so many dead, Katniss trusts no one, and the only peace she can imagine is to join them in the grave, but this idea too gives her nightmares. I’m no expert, but I’m sure she has a bad case of PTSD (post-traumatic-stress-disorder).

Violence consumes her and spits her out broken; she is used as a symbol of rebellion, the Mockingjay, thinking that she is furthering the cause of freedom, when in fact she is helping the advancement if a new dictator, just as willing to kill as the last. When her usefulness expires, and her influence becomes a threat, she becomes expendable, and measures are taken.

The Hunger Games Trilogy beings and ends tragically: with the death of children. The abuse of precious and innocent human life as political bait, as hostages, as gory entertainment, as propaganda, as sacrifice for power, as a means to an end. The end is ugly.

But the books do not end in despair, but return to that small, precious hope of a quiet family life, faithful love, and children, made wiser by our experiences, with a future better than our past.

It reminds me of the return to the Shire at the end of The Lord of the Rings, after all the war and trauma of the journey to destroy the one ring, the ring of power, that nearly consumed Frodo. This ring likely would have killed or totally destroyed him without the faithful friendship of Samwise Gamgee, the kind, generous and brave friend who never abandoned him. After it is all done, and they have succeeded, the most beautiful thing is to see Sam return home to Rosie, to love, a hearth and home, to have a family. This is what makes all the sacrifice and heroism worth it.

Sam and Peeta both show us that what really matters, in worlds that can be so twisted and complex, is to remain true to our essential core, which is unswerving fidelity to those we love, and the realization that love is stronger than death, and is the force which has far more power to save our world than violence.

So what does this mean for us?

That when we are angry, we should seek peace.
That when we are disgusted by someone’s actions, we should still treat them with respect because they are a human being, and we, too, are capable of making many mistakes.
That when we are despised or mocked, we should not spit back nasty words, because returning evil for evil is a sure way to let our enemies win, by turning us into the kind of people whose actions were hurting us in the first place.
That we should never put people in simplistic boxes of good or evil, especially if labelling them the latter dehumanizes them. When we stop treating other people like human beings, we become monsters.

There is an expression worth pondering, that we must drown evil in an abundance of good. Often the best way to make the world a brighter place, instead of lashing out against the darkness, is to let the light of goodness shine by doing many simple, kind, and generous things, and trusting that all these little actions do add up to something important. If we teach this to our children, they can bear little torches of hope out into the world, and touch many lives for the better.

I don’t mean that we shouldn’t fight against injustice, and rally around the oppressed, but when we are in any kind of struggle, let’s remember what the rebels in the Hunger Games forgot: that not only the cause matters, but the way of fighting it, because fighting for a just cause by evil means poisons the whole thing.

And if the idea of violence against children rightly horrifies us, let’s remember that all people, of every background, were once children, too.

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