To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best books ever written. Full stop.
I am not sure there is another book that deals with the intricacies and complexities of small town southern life in that day and time with more accuracy and care and intention. I somehow feel for every person in it, even the decidedly unlikable ones, and the capacity of the book to help people understand the harm that can be done by real prejudice, real hate and real selfishness is unmatched…as is, thankfully and conversely, the book’s capacity to see how real good and honest care for one another can cause shift toward compassion and forgiveness.
I could barely contain my glee when the Curly Girl chose TKAM to read from the list recommended by her new middle school for summer reading. The book is a challenge for her–not in content, but in the difficult vocabulary, whip smart whit, and complex sentence structure. Harper Lee did not play with the English language. She mastered it, and then used it to weave a completely delightful, painful, gut-wrenching and inspiring story.
(Also it took CG about 5 pages to declare, “Scout is amazing.” But I saw that coming a mile away.)
All this to say, we’re making our way through it. Slowly, and with lots of pauses, but surely. And then, last night, we stumbled on these words from Atticus Finch, Scout’s father–a widower, a lawyer, and a true believer in good:
“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-”
“-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
(Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird)
We read the words twice, and I asked CG if she knew what Atticus meant. “Yes,” she said, “he means you have to try to walk in their shoes.”
And in that moment I knew, I do not care if she gets anything else from the book, as long as she gets this one thing, “…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it….”
Because good lord, y’all. If there were ever a time in the history of these United States when it would be a really good thing for us all to heed Atticus’ advice…this would be it.
This. Would. Be. It.
- If you are not a woman who has been sexually harassed or assaulted at work, you do not know how helpless it can make even the mightiest woman feel, and how much shame it can produce.
- If you have not been divorced, you do not know how it feels or how difficult it is to truly heal from. No matter the reason.
- If you have not been life-threateningly ill, you do not know the fear it causes, deep in your bones, and how that fear sticks with you, even when you are well.
- If you are not a Muslim intent on peace and charity and prayer, you do not know what it is like to fear you will be mistaken for the “other kind.” And if you are not a Christian intent on peace and charity and prayer, you do not know what it is like to fear you will be mistaken for the “other kind.”
- If you are not a black man who has never known anything but poverty and violence and prejudice, you do not know what it’s like to try to thrive past all that.
- If you are not a white man who feels unheard, left behind, as if his voice and presence no longer matter, you do not know how it feels to try to make sense of a very different world.
- If you are not a single parent, you do not know how much harder it is to do…just to do…every single day.
- If you are not a gay person, you do not know what it is like to struggle with the fear, and confusion and sometimes shame of figuring it all out while you search for someone, anyone, who will love you through it.
- If you are not a mother fearful that her children will be swept up by the gangs in her Central American country, you do not know what it’s like to be willing to risk an illegal crossing into the United States, even if it means prosecution.
- If you have not been directly affected by addiction–of any kind–you do not know. You just do not know.
- If you are not a Trump supporter, you do not really know why another person would be. And if you were not an Obama supporter, you do not really know why another person would be.
You cannot know. You cannot begin to understand. Any of these things. Unless…
Unless you (we) first learn to listen.
Without already forming an response in our heads.
Without assuming our way is better no matter what.
Without any other motive than real understanding.
Without an honest effort to know the story of another person and find some common ground.
(Spoiler alert: If you are willing to dig deep enough, to be vulnerable enough, there is almost always common ground. Almost always.)
Look, I know. There is such a thing as real narcissism. And also real evil. And I have seen the damage and heartache both of those things can wreak. And I am not writing for such folks, because I believe we have to protect ourselves from that ilk and, also, I believe that they are painful exceptions to the rules that there is, almost always, common ground. That there is, almost always, a story that matters. That there is, almost always, a way to forward.
It’s so hard, y’all. I know.
It’s so hard to try to consider why someone would do something or believe something that you vehemently disagree with. It’s so hard to try to lift ourselves out of our own experience and into someone else’s. It’s so hard to actually do the work of lacing up someone else’s shoes and walking around in them.
But what I know for sure is this: when we do, when we do this hard work of listening, of making a real effort to understand…it makes all the difference. Transformative, sea change kind of difference.
Because it is only in this hard work that perspectives shift and hearts soften and the hope for kinder, more just and more whole communities becomes possible.
Their skin. Trying it on isn’t easy. But I believe with everything I’ve got that it might actually be worth the effort. Besides…Atticus says so.