With Fresh Eyes: The wisdom of Harper Lee


by Rich Nelson


 “Atticus was right.  One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”  This profound declaration from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird calls to us today to seek a more insightful and true understanding of those among us who feel ostracized, who are in peril, who seek justice.  When a vested effort is made to understand the plight of those whose journey in life does not mirror one’s own, preconceived and embedded notions of others are challenged and re-evaluated, resulting, hopefully, in the ultimate realization that we are all bound together by a shared and common humanity.

The adult narrator of Mockingbird is Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, who looks back on her formative growing up years in fictional Maycomb, Alabama.  During these early years, she is mentored by her father, lawyer Atticus Finch, and tolerated by her older brother Jem, though he proves protective of her at critical junctures in their passage through childhood.  When their father defends a black man falsely accused of rape, both children witness the realities of the institutional and ingrained racism of the 1930’s, but they come out of the experience with a heightened appreciation for their father, who demonstrates unwavering moral courage amid seemingly insurmountable odds.

The lessons of Mockingbird – tolerance, empathy, respect, honor - resonate with a clarity of purpose and direction. They are pertinent today in the virtuous responsibility that is ours to challenge the reckless and unprincipled tactics and policies that have emanated from the White House, of which we have been witness to – and which has exhausted us – over the past year and a half.  The repellent treatment of refugees seeking asylum, misrepresentation of the truth, emboldening of white supremacists, demonizing of the media, bullying and schoolyard provocations directed at those who courageously speak out, and belligerence toward our most valued allies while, in turn, autocratic despots glorified – all are dismissive of the moral and civic teachings of Mockingbird.

We are relinquishing our moral leadership and standing in the world. A 2017 survey showed that, in Germany, respect for the American President fell from an 86% approval rating during the Obama presidency to just 11% under the current administration.  At home, no other present day issue better illuminates and defines our moral identity as a country than that of immigration.  The refugees now seeking a better life for their families, for their children, are not here to “infest our country,” as stated in a recent, official presidential tweet.  The dehumanizing nature of this statement is unacceptable, and it should not stand without strong and unified denouncement.  And, it is but one of many malicious incriminations that have originated from, yes – the President of the United States.  We are better than this – much better.

At the conclusion of To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus comforts Scout after she and her brother Jem are attacked, leaving him seriously injured.  Holding vigil at Jem’s bedside, Atticus and Scout recount a children’s book in which one of the characters is unjustly maligned as an outsider.  Scout defends this character, saying, “Atticus, he was real nice.”  Her father replies, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” 

Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com