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Friday, February 19, 2016

Remembering Harper Lee

I learn things everywhere. This morning, for example, this appeared in Inc., the business magazine:

"Mockingbird," in its own way, is also a bible of empathic practice. Here are a few examples, culled from the first three chapters (to avoid "spoilers" for new or forgetful readers):

'Toward the end of Chapter 1, narrator Scout Finch (age 5), her brother Jem (age 9) and her next-door neighbor for the summer, Dill Harris (age 6), discuss the ethics of holding a lit match to a turtle, for the sake of getting the turtle to come out of its shell. "How do you know a match don't hurt him?" asks Dill. "Turtles can't feel, stupid," replies Jem. "Were you ever a turtle, huh?" rejoins Dill.

'In Chapter 3, Scout nonchalantly ridicules the eating habits of a lunch guest who comes from a poor family. Calpurnia, the housekeeper and caretaker for Scout and Jem, pulls Scout aside. "There's some folks who don't eat like us," she whispers fiercely to Scout, "but you ain't called on to contradict 'em at the table when they don't. That boy's yo' comp'ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him, you hear?" (With an ironic touch typical of Lee's best work, Calpurnia punctuates her lecture on empathy with a "stinging smack" to the face of the five-year-old girl.)

'Toward the end of Chapter 3, Scout and Jem's father, Atticus Finch, expressly explains to Scout the concept of empathy. "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view," he says. "Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Atticus is speaking specifically about Scout's young, inexperienced teacher, who on the first day of school, found herself flustered by the habits and manners of the children of Maycomb, Alabama. "We could not expect her to learn all Maycomb's ways in one day, and we could not hold her responsible when she knew no better," is how Scout summarizes Atticus's lesson.

'The point is clear: Before you criticize anyone--be it a school teacher or house guest or employee at your company--put yourself in his shoes. Second guessing is always easy--and seldom effective. At their best, Lee's stories illustrated the power of such personal empathy. In countless situations where her characters were tempted to cast premature judgments, she deftly reminded her readers to always ask that crucial five-word question--Who am I to judge?--and to err on the side of mercy.'

1 comment:

  1. I well remember that book being assigned reading along about 1962 and seeing the movie within a year of reading the book. I was blessed with a few excellent English and history teachers in my S.C. high school. In retrospect, I think their courses were more demanding and certainly more rewarding and useful than today's bachelor degrees in English Lit or History.

    Old Jill in N.C.