The Most Pure Realization
A To Kill A Mockingbird Essay
As children, we are selfish. We know only ourselves: who we are, what we want, how we feel. It takes years of hard lessons learned for us to begin to realize that life does not center around us, that it centers around all of us; that other people live out there, people who also exist selfishly and know only themselves, people who will soon begin to learn what we learned: that empathy reaps insight, empathy gives us an awareness of others which we could not have possessed before. Unfortunately, our role models are often remiss in teaching us the lesson of empathy, evading the true message in the morals they so often attempt to impart upon us. In gliding over that message, they do not provide us with the one piece of information we most desperately need: that one must empathize to understand others; that one must empathize to understand life. But Harper Lee doesn't glide. In her only novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout, a six-year-old girl and the narrator of the story, goes through dynamic changes around the time of a pivotal trial in Maycomb, Alabama, 1945. In this trial, Scout's father, Atticus, defends an obviously innocent black man to the best of his abilities, though ultimately his efforts come to no avail. But despite the critical nature of this event, Scout's biggest moral transformation lay outside courtroom doors.
Before the time of the trial, Scout knew only the most intriguing rumors about an unseen character called Boo, who, according to town gossip, “dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch.” Besides his cruel eating habits, he stabbed his father in the leg, his eyes popped, he usually drooled, and “what teeth he had were yellow and rotten”, making Boo a malevolent phantom through the eyes of a young girl (Lee 19). Lee develops Boo's character sporadically throughout the story without allowing the reader to see the real Boo. Then, in the end of the book, Scout finally meets Boo after he saves her life and that of her brother's, and she discovers that Boo, underneath his translucent skin and emaciated body, lives his life as a desperately misunderstood and truly gentle man. When she walks him to his porch, she turns to go home and finds that she has “never seen our neighborhood from this angle”. In that moment, she has an epiphany. She experiences a surge of empathy for Boo Radley, and becomes changed into jaded but forever enlightened individual. Scout will grow to become a mature, thoughtful, insightful woman because of that day, that experience, that empathy.
Langston Hughes understands the importance of empathy as well. Hughes wrote the story “Thank You, Ma'am” in which a struggling teenage boy, Roger, attempts to steal the purse of a woman, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, who, as he quickly learns, can more than take care of herself and her purse. After his attempted robbery, she takes Roger by his neck to her home, makes him wash his face, feeds him well, and finally hands him the money he had wanted so desperately in the beginning. She says that she has done bad things in her youth as well, things which she “would not tell you, son [Roger] – neither tell God, if He didn't already know” (Hughes), so she understands what it means to live like Roger: poor, afraid, and alone. She turns him loose with more than a full stomach and a clean face; she gives him a lesson in empathy he would never forget. She teaches him how to care that day when she could have shown him pain, could have turned him in and left him to defend for himself as he had always done. Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones changed one boy's life forever by identifying with him, understanding him, and loving him, and he, like Scout, grew irreversibly from it.
Like the experiences of Scout and Roger, there exists, ingrained in my life, a memory by which I have been forever changed. Unlike the experiences of Scout and Roger, however, it lives on as one of my most negative experiences. During my childhood, my mother married her second husband, a sarcastic, reclusive man who caused the memory which has remained for so long, the memory of what began as a simple time-out for some minor act of defiance. As I stood in the designated time-out corner, I slowly realized that I had to go to the bathroom. Badly. I called out to my stepfather and told him. He informed me that he would not allow me to go to the bathroom, I was in time-out. He left and my need to go increased, prompting me to plead with him to let me go to the bathroom. His answer did not change, and I eventually wet myself on the kitchenette tile, completely humiliated. Furious, he yelled at me and ordered me to clean up the mess with my pajama dress, though I wore it still. I obeyed, sobbing and shaking and recoiling at the scent as he stood over my shoulder reprovingly until I had finished. I returned to the corner, ashamed and violated. Later, when my mother had returned home, I told her everything, expecting sympathy. She denied everything, and would continue to do so until they divorced many years later. Through this experience, I saw, at a young age, how people behave when they refuse to take the feelings of others into consideration. They act horribly and despicably. I will not forgive him for what happened, and I will never forget what happened. I will always remember what I learned; I will always remember empathy.
I have grown from many things. I have grown from reading To Kill A Mockingbird and “Thank You, Ma'am” and from living through hardships that show me the worst sides of the people I like to pretend I understand. I have grown from knowing numerous adults who radiate selfishness, who try to hide how entirely judgmental they have become, and who ultimately do not deserve admiration or respect because they do not earn it. They have not grown; they have not truly come of age. They have never attempted to grasp what it means to put themselves in the shoes of others. But I have. I have worked to better myself constantly from learning the lessons of kindness, caring, and sympathy. I look up to Harper Lee and Langston Hughes because they have truly come of age, they have honestly matured. They exemplify the kind of adults children need. They have explained what their morals mean in the real world, and have even written their own handbooks on compassion. Lee and Hughes have done all of this because because they recognize, as do I, one of the most essential parts of life: empathy. Together we have reached the most pure realization. One must empathize to understand others; one must empathize to understand life.