On the surface, it seems so simple, but in reality it’s perhaps the hardest thing a person can do for the sake of another.
I had to be in about eighth grade or so when my English teacher handed out copies of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and I’m sure I joined in my classmates’ groans of dread and consternation about having to read yet another book I probably wasn’t going to give the least bit of a damn about.
Editorial Note: Looking back, I find it somewhat amusing that I ended up finding two of my all-time favorite books, being Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby during this time. It wasn’t until I got to high school and was forced to slog through Isaac Asimov’s abysmally glacial space opera Foundation and Empire that I became more combative with my English teachers when it came to required reading material.
I had no expectations of even liking Ms. Lee’s first novel when I cracked it open. To be honest, were it not for the fact that I had a grade riding on it, I’d have probably just ignored it and continued to procrastinate with my video games and other welcome distractions I had at the time.
For whatever reason, though, that didn’t happen, which I suppose is a testament to not only the story Lee was telling, but also her ability as a writer to craft an opening that draws the reader in with enough interested curiosity to keep turning page after page. I’ve gone on to read a great many books over the years and one of the things I’ve found is a great many writers (including myself, I’m sure) haven’t figured that crucial element of writing out.
Considering we’re seeing the world of Mockingbird from the perspective of a narrator who’s harking back to her own fledgling adolescence, I know that made it much more accessible for kids like me, even though we were decades removed from the same time period.
For me, the genius in what Lee accomplished isn’t that she gave us a fundamental lesson to consider. An innumerable amount of authors have done and continue to that all the time. What sets her apart is she managed to present it in the first act of Mockingbird and all Atticus Finch needed was two paragraphs to outline it.
Living in the postmodern era of movies and sitcom-TV, the formula is tried and tested. Tell the story, reach the climax, and save the pontificating on what you’re supposed to learn and how to live your life for the denouement.
Lee went the opposite way and not only gives it to the reader upfront, but doesn’t waste time beating you over the head with it either. A person can pick up a copy of the Bible or some other moralistic and philosophical text and be bombarded with chapter and verse of how we’re supposed to conduct ourselves in regards to one another. Mockingbird has none of that.
Atticus conveys his message to his daughter in fewer than 50 words, without being condescending or pretentious, which I think is a big reason why it resonated so much with me at a time where I wasn’t willing to see things from any other point of view but my own.
What I didn’t understand back then was how a work of fiction could have a lasting impact on a person. Subconsciously, I took that lesson to heart because it managed to resonate in ways I couldn’t anticipate. At the time, I was still very naive and very angry about being shipped to the West Coast and not only did I not want to be here, I had no interest in relating to anyone.
It wasn’t until I began to practice empathy that I realized how powerful a tool it can be. To be able to step outside of my own prejudices and biases and assumptions and presumptions about a person or a group of people and consider things, even for a minute, from their perspective…?
All the years I spent in churches and Catholic school never gave me that sort of insight, and it’s not always an easy thing to do either. In fact, I’ve found plenty of times where it’s the absolute last thing I want to do when being angry or obstinate just feels so much natural and justified a reaction.
Then there are times when I’d try it to better understand the position of someone who opted to bully and harass me and came away with a whole lot of confusion because I could never figure out why, for all the things they had that I didn’t, they chose to single me out as the outlet for their antagonism.
Editorial Note: I eventually reached the logical conclusion that they figured the privilege they were lucky enough to have been given afforded them some innate right to be such unconscionable assholes. And as I’ve discovered, there’s really no amount of empathy in the world to relate to that.
The older I get, the more examples I see of how much we don’t like being empathetic or compassionate to one another. As a society and culture, we seem to have become so polarized and so fragmented into our own little factions that to consider the perspective of someone else, even if they’re a close friend or even a spouse, is misconstrued as being one step from either capitulation, subjugation or outright treason.
In a time where everyone seems so quick to align themselves with the endless supply of -isms and ideologies that are butting heads with each other at all times, you would think we’d recognize it’s a lot better use of our collective time and energy to be open to those other perspectives and points of view.
Instead, we don’t and so the conflicts just keep getting bigger and more hostile.
I’m not placing myself above this, by the way. I’m not that sanctimonious.
But I keep hearing and seeing all the time about how hard the concept of adulting is, and how much both friends and strangers alike really don’t want to put in the effort to do it. Like it or not, a big part of adulting involves being empathetic and compassionate to other people, no matter how much you may despise or disagree with them.
It’s not easy, but it does work, and the best part is you’re never too old to start.