Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Lessons from Loss


To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel that inspired this blog, is a rich story about many things, foremost among them: loss. Atticus has lost a wife, the mother of his two children whom he nearly loses after losing a case against Tom Robinson, not because the defense was inadequate, but because Jim Crow prejudice ruled the jurors. As a consequence, Helen Robinson loses a fine husband and provider.

Artistic Still from the Film, To Kill a Mockingbird

Bob Ewell also loses the last shreds of an illusion that he is somehow superior to anyone or anything left on this planet when Atticus Finch brings forth the truth to all of Maycomb. Atticus allows Tom Robinson to speak in his own defense and say that he, a black man in the segregated South, felt sorry for a poor white woman in charge of uneducated, filthy children afflicted with lice and no woman to call Mother. Stripped of any claim to respect or influence after Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson conspire to reveal the truth about Mayella’s isolation, desire, and need, Ewell nearly takes Atticus’s children from him.

Young Jem Finch loses full use of his arm after Ewell’s attack, but more important, Jem loses much of his childish naïveté. He once thought all citizens of Maycomb to be fine, upstanding people. His neighbor, Boo Radley, is the single exception in Jem’s world view. Boo is a recluse with a colorful past made more daring and dangerous as that past becomes the stuff of legend.

Boo saves Jem and Scout from Ewell. Boo risks his own safety and exposure to rescue two children in need. Boo proves himself to be more than a good neighbor; he proves to be a hero, forcing Jem to acknowledge that the faces of neighbors are not so easily read or trusted. The twelve men who heard the evidence against Tom Robinson knew Tom to be innocent, but they voted to convict, they voted to uphold a lie, they voted to lift up an unwashed white family above the clean black one. Those jurors showed Jem that evil dwells within the hearts of men when they believe in lies and tell them to themselves.

"After the Storm," Moore, OK 2013. Photo by Al Griffin

We too have lost our childish naïveté. We cannot believe that our neighbors have our best interests uppermost in their thoughts and foremost in their actions after looting in Moore, OK in May, 2013. We doubt our safety in densely populated cities after poor Kitty Genovese was stalked and slaughtered as she screamed for help and her hearers stayed safely inside. Some of us know better than others that terrorism is not an invention conceived in foreign lands. Here, in the U. S., colonists preyed upon Native Americans and the KKK oppressed Black Americans. Colonials and the KKK resorted to depraved acts in order to advance their agendas and uphold their causes.

"March on Washington" (1963) by Bruce Davidson

But having lost our naïveté, have we, as Jem Finch did, gained insights as well? I hope so.

I hope that we believe more people have our best interests uppermost in their thoughts and foremost in their actions than there are people who would harm us. Surely the number of people who step up to offer help in times of crisis have convinced us that more good and little evil lives in our hearts. Ask the citizens of Moore, OK; of New York City; the Jersey Shore; Haiti; and countless other places on earth.

I also hope we have become convicted about the rights of all our citizens to live, prosper, and pursue their dreams. Last week’s commemoration in honor of the march on Washington fifty years ago suggests otherwise. Many are still in economic need. Wages are still unequal. Unemployment among Black citizens is still too high, and few in Congress have the information or the will that would lead us to solutions rather than to a continuation of the status quo.

Yet the number of speakers and attendees on August 28th lead me to believe that thousands have become convicted. May they advocate, as Atticus Finch did, by word and deed, by living an honest life, one that aspires to progress in spite of any obstacles in their paths. We are all or should be imperfect machines in search of perfection.