“‘…when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things… Atticus, he was real nice…’ His hands were under my chin, pulling the cover, tucking it around me. ‘Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.'” (Chapter 31)
I have written extensively about Atticus’s call to compassion in the famous lines to his daughter Scout about “climbing into someone else’s skin”, but I think we often forget about the significance of the book’s closing lines. I came across the final page this morning and was engaged with the idea that we rarely take the time to truly see our neighbors as the beautiful, ugly, and complex stories that are still being written. We generally define people in a way that fits into our own agenda and needs, because it is safe and easy; “he is an atheist”, “they are uneducated”, “she is just a fundamentalist”, “what a liberal”, or “typical Republican”. Curiously, we often do the same thing to God; assigning him the names and characteristics that carefully edify and affirm our own positions and paradigms.
I had a terrible experience with a professor in graduate school and, shortly after, went to dinner with some folks that had just signed up to take this teacher’s course. I found myself wanting to influence the way my fellow students viewed this professor, rather than allowing them to form their own opinions. I had to fight hard to keep my mouth shut. I also remember as a junior high basketball coach, a parent coming to me before our first practice to explain all the horrible problems I was going to have with one of the players on my team. When, in fact, the kid was no problem at all for me and even ended up being one of my all-time favorites. It is not only difficult for us to take the time to truly see people, but we too often get caught up in working to manipulate how others see people!
Scout learned a great lesson in To Kill a Mockingbird through her relationship with Boo Radley. She and the children get caught up with the town’s stories of Boo, however, when Scout finally meets him, he is nothing like what she expected. From Mrs. Dubose to Boo Radley, and even Mayella Ewell, the novel teaches us that there is so much more to folks than what is on the surface. People are complex; we are good and bad, beautiful and ugly, ironic and contradictory — and these are the very elements that constitute great stories. As a theological aside: I am not discounting sin, but proposing the very real truth that our stories are ongoing and the power of change is found in the depth of connection we maintainwith each other. If the character of Atticus Finch teaches us anything, it is the profound truth that there is never redemption outside of relationship — and there is no chance at relationship when we are busy defining and isolating each other.