It’s the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’ve got the film paused, just after the scene in which the verdict is handed down. Guilty. Both the film and the book resonate very deeply with me, in all the themes they touch upon. Family, community, love, goodness, social responsibility, justice, right and wrong…right and wrong particularly regarding the conditions of racial and class inequality as they existed in the United States in the years before the Civil Rights Movement, but also right and wrong in the spiritual sense of a human dignity that trumps the rational system of justice. Underlying all these is a greater theme that ties them together in the person of Atticus Finch.
Jem, I don’t know if it’ll help, but, I want to say this to you. There are some men in this world who are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them.
~ Maudie Atkinson
To Kill a Mockingbird
I began the day with the subject of courage and, it seems, I’ll end the day with it again. Not the courage of super heroes, or of those who feel compelled to lead, but the courage of those who live out their convictions, who do not flinch from the unpleasant jobs no one else will take on. The heroes who step up when no one else will. It’s these people, the unlikely heroes, like Harry Potter and Atticus Finch, Rosa Parks and others who take on the mantle of leadership without the desire to lead, all those stand their ground rather than back down. Those who risk. Even those, like Joannie Rochette and Petra Majdic, who simply find the courage to do their best when others might wilt and whither.
We, as a society, need these unlikely and largely unsung heroes. They move us, inspire us, give us faith in our fellow beings, even ourselves. They lead without leading, guide without without offering guidance.
When Maudie tells Jem his father’s among those men born to take on the ugliness in the world, he simply replies, “I know.” Moments later, Atticus informs them all of Tom Robinson’s death and leaves to inform Tom’s family, Jem insists on going with him. Unflinching. Later, when he and Scout are attacked by Ewell, he disregards his own safety to try and save his sister. Jem knows because, like his father, and already at this young age, he sees that unpleasantness in the world, won’t shy from it, challenges it. Jem is already among such men.
My question…is it a birthright that makes such heroes? Or is it simply a choice of the moment, one that must be made time and again? I think that, perhaps, some are born with the resources readily available to them, so they risk when others shy away. But I think also that those resources are available to all of us, that we can find them in ourselves at any time. That when a defining moment comes in our lives, we can choose who we are, what we’re about, and make the choice that is right, the choice that protects the mockingbird.