Stand Up Scout

After the trial for Tom Robinson's life, attorney Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom in defeat.

After the trial for Tom Robinson’s life, attorney Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom in defeat.

It’s a hot summer night in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama.  It’s 1933, right in the heart of the Great Depression.  People are desperate, poor, and tense.  Everyone in this town has been following a major trial — the one for Tom Robinson’s life.

Tom Robinson is African-American, despised for the alleged rape of a young Maycomb woman by his predominantly white peers.  They’ve already organized a mob, and would’ve taken his life by their own hands if not for the man standing between their fervent vengeance and the accused.

His name is Atticus Finch.  A pensive, intellectual and virtuous attorney…a widower struggling to raise his two children and defend a man that he knows doesn’t have a chance. On that night in the summer of 1933, Atticus and Tom will lose their fight.  And after the crowd of spectators leave this old courtroom, Atticus Finch is left alone to pack his belongings away into his briefcase.

But he’s not alone.  Watching above from a crowded balcony are his supporters — the forgotten community of Maycomb, and his children…his son Jem and daughter Jean Louise, a tomboy known to everyone as “Scout.”  To these people, this defeated man didn’t fail tonight…to them – he is a hero.

As he shuffles out of the courtroom, they rise in silent, stoic unison.  All but Atticus’ daughter.  It’s at this moment that a Reverend nearby softly demands…

“Stand up Scout.  Your father’s passing.”

Scout obeys — standing with the others, as Atticus exits the courtroom.

It’s always been one of my favorite scenes, in a movie that is powerful and poignant…a story that is timeless and rich with important lessons.  The bond between Atticus and his two  young children is the current that runs through this story, as they come-of-age in the most challenging of times.

Atticus and his daughter Jean Louise (aka "Scout")

Atticus and his daughter Jean Louise (aka “Scout”)

Early on in the story, Atticus tries to teach his daughter Scout a lesson in empathy.  He explains to her…

“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. 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.”

Atticus Finch is one of the greatest heroes in American fiction.  Gregory Peck’s portrayal of this character in the film not only won him an Oscar, but his character was named the # 1 Film Hero of all-time by the American Film Institute.  His embodiment of courage, quiet strength, humility, compassion, and above all – empathy makes this character and this story an unparalleled teaching tool for not just children, but for all of us.  There’s a lot we can learn from Atticus Finch…a lot we can learn about empathy.

When no one else could see it, Atticus struggled with his decisions and the tremendous pressure he was under.

When no one else could see him, Atticus struggled with his decisions and the tremendous pressure he was under.

There’s a certain paradox we struggle with while living life.  Outwardly, we see ourselves as separate, alone, and in constant competition with the world around us.  We force ourselves to toughen up, thicken our skin, defend ourselves if needed by fighting anyone or anything that seems to threaten us.  But all this attitude does is deepen the separation we feel.

So while we see the world this way, within we wish for it to be the opposite.  We strive to feel connected, understood…and loved.  This is why we seek out stories like To Kill a Mockingbird, why we strive to find archetypal heroes like Atticus Finch – because they feed our inner and better self.

Atticus’ solution to any challenge his children face is empathy.  When they get into fights at school, he forbids the violence and instead encourages them to see things from their antagonizer’s point-of-view.  When his son can’t understand why Tom Robinson’s accuser confronted and spit at Atticus after the trial, Atticus talks to him about tolerance and inner strength, not retaliation.  He teaches his son how to rise above the hate, not become swallowed by it.

All violence, all anger, all hate comes not from competition or a need for survival but from a place of fear.  This exists all around us, and if you think about it, is easily apparent…but just as easily forgotten. It takes the greatest strength to remember this, and the deepest courage.  That’s the road to empathy.

Empathy fosters connection, makes us feel deep inner peace and bliss, it’s the gateway to happiness, compassion, and love.  Maybe Atticus knew this better than most and maybe that’s why we wished it for his children…because there was no greater gift he could give them in life than the art of seeing the world from someone else’s point-of-view.

~ by Dan Fabrizio on March 11, 2013.

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