Preaching Empathy, Compassion and Solidarity from Boo Radley’s Porch
She stands transfixed in the wake of recent turmoil, stilled and swooning in the all-knowing hum of the hot summer night. An ever observant eight year old girl reflects inwardly and outwardly. She takes in the view of her home from a new angle, one that until this night was but a panicked and perilous intersection of fight and flight, danger and sanctuary.
A new and profound knowledge courses through her, bestowed by this wondrous experience: the sight of her house, her entire neighborhood—from that diametrically “other” place. How unimaginable this scene and sensation has been, with nary a hint glimpsed during her few young years. But now, all has changed and from now on, all will be cast anew.
Scout, the young protagonist of Harper Lee’s classic adventure novel To Kill A Mockingbird expresses her astonishment at the unexpected simplicity of this discovery as she states with humble certainty, “Just standing on Boo Radley’s porch was enough”.
A deceptively basic, undeniably stark proclamation: the larger world awaiting would be inhabited by myriad and disparate realities, inconvenient and stubborn, just beyond the reach of most, unless a conscious choice is made to acknowledge, imagine and explore a perspective other than our own.
The grand effervescent arch of literature is comprised of these hero’s journeys, each culminating in a rewarding homecoming, a return to where all is as it should be and as we want it ever to be: safe, nurturing, unconditionally supportive, understanding, charitable, forgiving and loving.
It’s a widely accepted and wisely appropriated narrative model in Greek mythology: characters jostled from their “ordinary worlds”, stirred by a call to adventure, who initially refuse the call, then finally accept it before being irreversibly thrust upon their personal odyssey. Along the way they discern and cherish faithful allies, while becoming wary of lurking treachery in enemies. Mentors on high advise and guide them as thresholds are crossed, battles are fought and crises are confronted in every imaginable form of obstacle. They are dared to grow.
We've notoriously identified with one particular protagonist as she gazes down upon revelatory ruby slippers upon her own two feet. Our hearts resonate with this moment as we wait longingly for the one earnest incantation that will launch us with her back to a safer, more sensible, serene and familiar world.
Consistently, and only after learning to rely solely upon their own fortitude and a newly discovered inner strength, the heroes “find” themselves. Yes, they return home, but that is not the ultimate resolution of their quest. They arrive to a newly transformed origin to present the retrieved gift—a magical elixir—for the larger tribe, a salve that enhances new courage with which to brave its larger plights and woes: the no longer hidden codes of redemption.
This achievement is not a “return” to what once was, for that would merely be a regressive retreat, but rather the progressive evolution of character and spiritual growth.
We invented the word quixotic to describe a futile effort-- windmill leaning, as it were--for it was Cervante’s anti-hero that endeavored to rediscover and recapture a time when all was right, noble, fair and good, essentially to “find what was once home”, yet failed to realize that his retrospective was illusory. He pursued not transcendent knowledge, but merely entertained a nostalgic obsession with what was at best a vivid aspiration, a fleeting man-made impossible dream which never completely existed.
That is each our own private place of reckoning. Our future is informed with our past, but that past is enhanced with the same creative imagination that fashions our desired future. We’re encouraged to optimism by promises of an imagined reward, yet hindered by wary skepticism born of the still stinging scars of past experiences. We fear first for ourselves before turning a braver gaze outward to others.
Our larger society is comprised of smaller, closer communities. Within them dwells our respective individual realities. An endemic struggle exists between these tiered cohorts as we each experience the varying degrees of loosenings and tightenings of the societal harness, each pulling (or pushing back) his or her share of cynically resistant or civically responsible load, cultivating a future for both our smaller and larger selves.
As the world continues to be exponentially more humanly populated, an ever more inescapable fact insists: each is not alone but affected often profoundly by the consequences of behavior from the parochially trivial to the globally pervasive.
Today, chronic dysfunctional divisiveness increasingly proves to be the competitive currency, baiting individual responses, feeding the larger special interests of consorted commerce and mega-industries.
But there still remains a larger and more reliable truth.
It says that one is all and all are one, whether or not that’s ever consciously perceived. It too often is not, and I, for one, am frequently astonished by our seeming inability to accept even our one common planet as a unifying concept. This truth bears out in the scientific conclusion that everything we do or say begets consequential effects for us all. It's in these ways, from the nuanced and trivial to the profoundly impactful, that we are each other.
Western capitalists may decry socialism, collectivism or any other myriad “taboo” non-competitive systems, but these too are cynical and manufactured precepts. The larger, longer continuum is comprised of individual lives, each beginning and ending at their own respective points within it. Moments become life chapters become lifetimes become historical epochs. Along the way, those who episodically subscribe to an “on your own” meritocratic approach to citizenry are the least likely to consider any extensive exploration of an other’s life circumstance as worth the time and effort. What useful insight might lie within striven for for sympathy? Why bother, when compared to one’s own more nourished state, the revelation may prove to be abject, poignant and unpleasant? Once elements of protective avarice and caste-related guilt are added to the recipe, the resultant mixture becomes a repellant—forcing one to push from the true self those uncomfortable notions until they're out of sight and mind. A handy helplessness is a byproduct of the process, and apathy is disguised with its uncaring cloak.
Prejudice and bigotry are endemic to the human species as we’re blessed and cursed with a stubborn proclivity to imagine. We perceive through lenses of experience, veils of suggestions and the fluid metrics of convenience, comfort, cause and compulsion. We navigate like animals, ever mindful of possible threats, and we discern these dangers with information that we’ve learned first hand or have supposed from related portrayals and narratives. With these templates we build our personal “realities”, and we rush to defend them whenever they’re threatened, for fear they may be dispelled.
Haven’t we each, since childhood, constructed our own ideas and images of upcoming events, persons or places with no more fuel for fancy than a vague description or notion? We instinctively create the overall tones, settings, faces, voices, feelings— anything with which we can initially relate before actually posting in person for the genuine experience.
Words create pictures, verbal accounts evoke experiences, either impressively real or vicariously interpreted.
The class trip, the party, the blind date, the audition, the concert etc.—those words alone evoke a faux reality based upon an inner perception we’ve weaved from descriptive yarns and the threads of our own recollection. We treat ourselves to a supposed reality and without these “gifts of expectation” those people, places and sensations lurking before us in time would be quite literally unimaginable, perhaps frighteningly so.
Having taken that trip, having had the experience, we’re bemused at the newly discovered disparities between those “before” and “after” renditions of truth. We only then realize that what we’d imagined (sometimes in spectacular detail) was merely a “stand-in” reality that we could conveniently anticipate. The ‘before’ scene existed purely behind our eyes. The ‘after’ was vividly before us as three dimensional reality. We continue to edit, enhance and shape the experience afterward, as well.
Often we’ve heard “I don’t know what I was expecting but…” or “I wasn’t prepared for that...” , but we indeed did expect something in our attempt to gird ourselves for the unknown.
We compulsively prepare. It’s instinctual, involuntary and survival oriented. We as a species suffer from chronic prejudice, and the fear of losing that sufferance results in chronic bigotry.
As children seeking understanding with limited experience, we asked questions:
Why is that child crying?
Why is that man angry?
What is happening?
Why is it happening? Who are they? Who are you? Who am I?
We received answers from our supreme mentors—our parents and elders—who replied with “explanations”. As youngsters, we’ve no other contradictory information with which to question or challenge, so the explanation is largely accepted and becomes what we anticipate until we learn for ourselves otherwise. With enough verifications within a small number of possible contexts—sometimes only one—we're delivered to an ever more intransigent place where we’d rather our “certainties” not be challenged. We have, unwittingly, embraced our own “confirmation bias”.
We are doing the same as a society. Our legacy is to be the natural victim of hand-me-down partial-truths, convenient misrepresentations, carefully cultivated faux-fact, to put it charitably. More bluntly put, we’ve been lied to, sold myths and kept ignorant. Although hardly a fresh concept, I believe that this societal ignorance, with its critical peaks and nadirs oscillating throughout the eras, has recently gained a chaotic momentum delivering us to a desperate moment. This chaos must be attenuated with reason, knowledge and self-discovery lest the ugliness become a self-manufacturing entity all its own.
In the face of lament or a sincerely expressed grievance, when faced with the prospect that our words, actions, policies or intimations have indeed offended someone’s sensibilities, we hear time and again the incredulous:
“I don’t see why they can’t just…”
“After all, what was so offensive?”
“Apologize for what?” …
…all selfish inquiries, pleas for charitable exemption and undeserved clemency.
I’ve one personally peevish button-pusher: “They have all the same rights and privileges as the rest of us. Why can’t they appreciate that and stop whining”, and its many related variants. My reply in such conversations is to encourage more exploration of “the other’s” realities, after which you may not be quite as perplexed.
As inexperienced children, we created realities with which we could eagerly anticipate a journey. As “experienced” adults, we close the doors and windows, pull up stakes and put down the periscope in order to minimize any new information that may challenge long-held sometimes sacredly cherished beliefs. We may even be offended ourselves when such ludicrous complaints issue forth from theretofore negligible quarters. To acknowledge the challenge, problem or "squeaky wheel" would be an admission of having been wrong or unfairly neglectful. But in the hero’s journey it is knowledge that fuels our forward motion. It is what we learn, more than what we know, that steers us home.
There was prejudice throughout To Kill A Mockingbird, in young and old, within and without, before and probably after. From Scout the weight of her particular prejudice was lifted as if by angels with just one gesture. She’d made a years-long journey to see, hear, learn, feel, try, fail and finally succeed in making her way home only to take a few additional brave steps, delivering Boo to his home. She’d by then learned first-hand that he was not the cryptic monster she had imagined him to be, but a true and caring ally. He had held her dear, being a crucial friend in his unique way. He’d been a vigilant protector for Scout, Jem and Dill for longer than they had realized. He was an ally they’d yet to size up as such. He saved them.
But the larger, more profound reward was earned merely by turning on her heels to take in the scene before heading back home. The street had not changed, nor the houses, but nothing would ever again be exactly as she’d once imagined, for her real experience was now enhanced with a new angle, long denied to her by circumstance, fear and predisposition.
The lesson is the elixir: One must make the journey to the other place to earn it, to have it. We must see it for ourselves—in ourselves. But if that’s not physically possible, we might usher our mind’s eyes a few steps further, prevail upon our natural gifts of invention to consider what we may very well have overlooked.
Only then can we widen our souls’ horizons to prepare ourselves for other truths before those actual trips. It requires imagination. It requires creativity. Those human gears already turn with each day’s plan-making, but when we’re challenged with an alien concept, behavior or customary tradition or a belief strange to us, we might put aside a bit of knee-jerk caution to take a few steps farther outside our comfortable yards.
If we can heroically summon the will, we might venture part way into the misty veils of faint plausibilies and imagine how someone else’s circumstance may look and feel from where they live. If you’ve not been there, please refrain from throwing up helpless hands. Take a breath, count to three, take a closer look. You may still be wearing the ruby slippers, and you can make that trip. Upon arrival you’ll have won the reward: a fresh take on the origin of another universal sensibility. The glimpse will look different to you. But you’ll also see something familiar that allows you to relate, even a little bit. And it’s all relative.
There’s a North Star winking above us all, and we each and all have multitudes more similarities than differences. We all have hearts, and we’ve all been hurt. And we all have imaginations.
But we must take that walk—in our own minds and in our own shoes. When we resist, we shun the challenge. But if we’re to prevail as heroes, we must finally accept that call and make the journey. It may be dark and we may need a lantern, but that light will show the way to where truths exist. If we turn it inward as well, we may catch a glimpse of some fairy tales whose truths aren’t as reliably absolute as we had once preferred them to be.
We can then return stronger with eyes, hearts and minds opened wider with hard-earned enlightenment. That elixir might help to join some smaller pieces of our world into larger sturdier ones.
We can then “find” ourselves on that other porch that, albeit in the very same neighborhood, offers an altogether fresh view. Sometimes just standing on it and having one gaze is enough to change the look and feel of your own street forever.