Most superhero origin stories start in warehouses with mysteriously bubbling vats of toxic waste, or laboratories containing strange-looking gadgets, or occasionally on other planets which are sometimes exploding.
Mine starts in English class. My sophomore year of high school, we read To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, and I loved it. I loved the quotes, I loved the story, and I loved Atticus Finch most of all.
So, I did what any ordinary, painfully nerdy, and utterly unremarkable fifteen-year-old would do: I asked God for Atticus Finch’s superpowers. Seriously. I prayed for three things from the book. Here’s the list, and my reasons behind wanting them.
The Ability to Feel
The part of the novel that stuck with me the most, is after the trial, when *spoiler* Atticus loses the case and Dill, Scout’s friend, bursts into tears at the injustice of it all. At that point, another character says, “Things haven’t caught up with that one’s instinct yet. Let him get a little older and he won’t get sick and cry. Maybe things’ll strike him as being—not quite right, say, but he won’t cry, not when he gets a few years on him.”
And he’s right. As we become adults, we become numb to suffering and injustice, dulled by cynicism, a stream of negative headlines, and a shortage of hope that things can be different. We can no longer mourn for strangers. To some degree that’s healthy, because if we tried to bear the burdens of the entire world, they would crush us.
Unless we ask for a little more strength. And I remember thinking, at fifteen, I don’t want things to catch up to me, not like that. I don’t want to lose the ability to get sick and cry.
I’m still not saying the answer to the question “Who, then, is my neighbor?” is every single person in distress. I went through a time when that absolutely paralyzed me. No, the parable of the good Samaritan is pretty clear on the point that your neighbor is the person God brings into your path and tells you to help.
But maybe we’re taking the wrong paths. Maybe we’re not seeing people on the side of the road. Maybe we could spend more of our concern on people who aren’t us or our immediate family members. Maybe we could pray for strangers, treat total nobodies with respect, risk a little more of our hearts caring about a wider range of people. Maybe I can.
It will hurt. It means weeping for reasons others won’t understand, writing blog posts that ache with honesty and vulnerability, making choices to stay when others think you should move on, saying goodbyes that hurt, literally, like hell because the closest Christians will get to hell, I think, is separation. Something we were never meant for.
But it matters. And it matters because of the next point.
The Ability to Love
Atticus reminds us that it’s not enough just to feel sorry for someone. You have to do something about it. He understood people deeply, probably articulating their motivations better than they themselves could, at times. And that caused him to love others more, to be quick to show mercy and slow to anger. (Hey, does that sound like someone else we know?)
I understand people, too. Sometimes I’m still judgmental, because even if I know why they’re doing something, it still makes me mad or annoys me or puts me in an awkward position, and selfishly, I do not like that.
But I’m working on it. I try to remember that the grumpy mom behind me in line might have had a hypercritical mother too…or no relationship with her mother at all. That the person bothering me when I’m trying to write is not on a personal mission to hijack my productivity, but is a human being deserving courtesy. That the lovely young woman who posts about two selfies a day on Facebook must be hiding some deep insecurities.
I try to remember soon enough that I can speak a little more kindly or at least bite back that harsh thing I was going to say. Soon enough to give hugs and edit my email response and stop complaining about a minor inconvenience someone else’s tragedy forces upon me.
I try to remember that they have stories too, and I probably won’t ever know them, not enough to really understand. So if I respond as graciously as possible, that seems like a good place to start.
The Ability to Fight
Does anyone else who read the book remember Mrs. DuBose? I didn’t, until I read the journals I had to write for English class. Turns out, I thought she was the coolest minor character ever.
She’s the mean, racist spinster who Scout and Jem had to read to every day as punishment for destroying her flowers (in classic grumpy-old-lady style). As it turns out, the reason she was so irritable was because she was in incredible pain…and refused to take morphine because she wanted to quit her addiction to the drug before her death. Atticus wanted his children to learn the real meaning of courage from her, which, to him, was “when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
Her story echoes a rallying cry that I want to have, right until the very end. “This is why we fight. When we die, we will die with our arms unbound.” There is freedom there, freedom from addiction and fear and the lies that say, “You can’t, you won’t, and you never will. This is who you are.”
I love Mrs. DuBose. I admire her bravery, even when it seems like she had nothing to gain but a moral victory, and I want to be like her.
The problem is, I am a coward. I’ve made progress on the first two by a combination of God’s grace and the fact that my personality is a little more on the bleeding-heart-compassionate side. But this one…to say I’m not there yet would be an understatement.
Why? Because it’s easier to stay in my comfort zone, to accept my flaws as inevitable, to just get by. Feeling others’ pain and loving them comes naturally to me, superpower style, but fighting, being brave, risking failure, has always been very, very hard.
And I don’t like hard things. But if Atticus Finch teaches us anything, it’s that sometimes the things that are the hardest are the most worth doing.
What’s a book you read for school that had an impact on you?