Like many American kids, the first time I read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s classic novel about life in the Depression-era Deep South, was in middle school. My reaction to the book involved a combination of the following:
* Bitter tears of frustration
* Despair and humility in the face of humanity's inhumanity
* Hope, in the form of Atticus—his steady moral consciousness, which is bigger than his society and its twisted norms, and his insistence on compassion and empathy, even when they are most difficult.
I have been meaning to reread the book for several years but found it ... difficult. Every few months, I’d pick it up, read the first few pages, be immediately drawn in by Lee’s dry humor, the power of her words to transform into visual landscapes in my imagination. Then, the encroaching dread of knowing where the story is going and not wanting to go back to that shadowy place, the one where my heart gets shredded into teeny tiny little pieces. Though I know it’s dangerous to deny the brutality of the human condition, in our history and our present. To pretend it doesn’t exist can enable it to proliferate unchecked. Ignoring it can also mean we fail to honor—and be inspired by—those who risk everything to make the world a less horrible place, even if only fractionally or theoretically.
Though I wish I hadn't needed it to, this reading challenge pushed me to follow through on rereading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” from the first page right through to the last (with a full box of Kleenex). My experience of it was pretty much what I described in the first paragraph. I’m grateful for all of it, because to be engaged in the business of living in any way that is authentic means swinging perpetually on that pendulum from despair to hope. And really, what use would we have for hope if there were no despair?
Besides amassing a pile of soggy tissues, I collected the passages that most inspired me, the ones I want to return to again and again and that I want to share with you:
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”
“I do my best to love everybody … I’m hard put sometimes.”
"People in their right minds never take pride in their talents."
"Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing."
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."
“When you and Jem are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn’t let you down.”
“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”
"[B]efore I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."
For those who are curious about which Gilmore Girls episodes the novel is referenced in, they are “Emily in Wonderland” (season one), “The Ins and Outs of Inns” (season two), and “Take the Deviled Eggs” (season three).