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Radical Empathy and TKAM

With winter term winding down, I’m currently wrapping up a unit on To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM). I rediscovered this gem last year, when subbing in a high school English class. In rereading the story as an adult, I found that I wanted to more fully explore the thematic layers (empathy, moral development, the definition of courage) in a college classroom where I would have the freedom to explore these ideas in a modern cultural (yes, even political) context.

I haven’t been disappointed. My students (a mixture of sophomores through seniors) know their history, and yet, for the most part, they are still able to consider these themes through a modern cultural lens. However, when I asked the class whether it’s truly possible to, as Atticus famously suggests, “walk around in someone else’s skin,” the answer I got surprised me.

I admit that I was expecting a somewhat Pollyanna response, and what I got was completely the opposite. “Is it truly possibly to see the world from someone else’s perspective,” I asked, “if your experiences have been different?” The only African American guy in my class spoke up. “No,” he said. “You can’t know if you haven’t lived it.”

His comment has stayed with me because it echoes the resounding testament of our current culture, a culture in which the voices of marginalized groups are finally being heard by the majority. For the first time in history, racists, sexists, and perpetrators of violence and oppression are being called to publicly account for their sins. There is a cultural reckoning happening in our country, and I join in the chorus of voices that shout, “It’s about damn time!”

And yet.

I am also grappling with a sticky, uncomfortable part of this issue. So bear with me.

This weekend, this cultural reckoning hit someone I know square in the face. In admitted ignorance, he attempted a joke with gender-biased undertones. A somewhat minor crime, at least compared to those of the sexual monsters we see daily hauled up on the news. And yet the full weight of our country’s new awareness came pouring down on his head like a dump-truck full of concrete.

Did he deserve it? I don’t know.

Truthfully, I’m becoming more and more aware that unless I’m the person who has been hurt, I don’t actually get to determine the pain meter. However, I do know that once this person was buried in concrete, he couldn’t hear a word anyone said. And while this may very well be an important growth opportunity for him, it will take a heroic effort to lower his instinctual defenses and try to consider the situation from the opposite perspective.

You see, if I’m going to view Maycomb, Alabama (the fictional setting of TKAM) as a “moral universe” with its own set of culturally entrenched rules (both written and unwritten), I have to extend that same consideration to the real-life people in my real-life world. I have to consider what Atticus Finch refers to as their “blind spots”—the places in their lives where their upbringing, or religion, or family of origin blurs that otherwise clear line between right and wrong.

One question that came up during class discussion was whether forgiving these “blind spots” is an act of compassion or an excuse for otherwise unacceptable behavior. But on further reflection this morning, I think that’s the wrong question.

While some people suggest that our country has become too sensitive, I think a more accurate depiction is that we’re all walking around with open wounds—wounds inflicted by racist and/or sexist remarks or experiences. We feel, like my student, unseen, unheard, and unrepresented. And when people brush up against those wounds, the sting of their original infliction goes straight to our hearts.

While we may not be able to “walk around in another person’s skin,” we can perhaps consider where our own “blind spots” are—the places where our reactivity is fueled by a history of unmet suffering. The question then becomes how do we meet that suffering? How do we stop flinging lighter fuel around and start handing out bandages instead? How do we begin to heal?

One inspiring story of healing comes from Megan Phelps-Roper, who defaulted from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church and now writes and speaks on empathy. You can watch her inspiring Ted Talk here, but her ultimate message is that change did not occur in her life because the people on the opposite side of the picket line met her with rage and hatred that matched her own. On the contrary, she experienced transformative healing when those who opposed her view STILL met her with love, empathy, and understanding.

It is not lost on me that taking responsibility for our own suffering really sucks, when a clamoring for justice is our very human nature. Nor am I suggesting that radical forgiveness is an alternative to the very necessary justice being meted out to perpetrators of violence and hate.

I am, however, suggesting radical forgiveness and deep empathy as an alternative to personal suffering, and perhaps a starting point for cultural healing.

I followed up with my student who had suggested that true empathy is impossible, that we can’t walk around in another person’s skin when we haven’t shared the same life experiences. “Maybe that’s true,” I said. “But do you think it’s worth it to try?”

His eyes lit up as a smile stretched across his face in answer: “Yes.”

It’s not much, but it’s something. Or maybe it’s everything, depending on who you ask.

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