Killing Mockingbirds

The house looks a bit slummy this week, because I have been re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird instead. This has been my third reading over twenty five years, and it gets better each time. Mind you, most books are more fun than cleaning the bathroom.

Atticus Finch. Now, not only does he have one of the best names in the history of literature, he is also an excellent role model. Every night he sits in his armchair after dinner, reading the night away. Now, why can't I do this? I try, believe me, but inevitably A Domestic Crisis takes hold. The dog escapes out of the front door and chases the cats up the street, with all the children running after them and yelling. Someone loses a vital doohickey that they need for school the next day, or develops a fever, or tips over the bird cage, or 'remembers' an entire Art project due tomorrow or wants to play the flute for me. Clearly I am doing the parenting thing wrong, and I will have to go back to the text for more clues on after-dinner child-wrangling.

But apart from his excellent parenting skills, Atticus Finch turned a light on for me this week.

I don't have to change the world.
I don't have to change the world.
I don't have to change the world.

There is a bit of a cult of the superhero in our society. We are supposed to be great. All of us. If We Only Set Our Minds To It, We Can Do Anything. We know this, because Oprah tells us so. And so many of us are idealists. We do want to change the world. We want to make a difference. But the truth is, most of us live small, unregarded lives. We may influence our families, our neighbours, our friends. Or maybe not even them, because, despite the fact that we are Clearly Right, some people just have minds of their own. And this is an appalling realisation for those of us who are idealists and also sensitive to the superhero myth. We want to be stars as a force for good, but instead we are only tiny little twinkly fairy lights. And we have temper tantrums and kick the furniture, then throw up our hands in despair and decide that trying to change the world is pointless, and that living any way that is any different to our neighbours is completely pointless, because nobody cares.

And this is where Atticus Finch has become my shining light. Atticus Finch knew what was right. He knew that many of his neighbours and countrymen thought he was an idiot and a traitor. He chooses to defend a black man falsely accused of rape because it is the right thing to do. He knows he will lose the case. He takes it anyway, because as he explains to his perplexed brother, if he doesn't take it, he won't be able to live with himself, and he won't be able to face his children. He chooses not to kill the innocent mockingbird, not to wash his hands of the death of the mockingbird, but to fight for its life with everything he has.

That, right there, is the thought I want to hold onto. I, personally, can do nothing to make the tiniest dint in global climate change. I can't right the injustices of the world that put money before people or start wars for resources. The world is full of innocent mockingbirds though; humans, animals, trees, oceans. And all around us the greed and stupidity of governments and corporations is killing the mockingbirds, and most of us do nothing, because we cannot see any way to fix the problem.

But, I don't have to change the world. Atticus Finch did not change his world. He lost his case, but he fought hard for it. He caused some of his neighbours and countrymen to face some unpalatable facts. I don't have to change the world. I just need to be able to live with myself, and be able to face my children.

Even that feels ridiculously hard of course. What is the right way to live? How can I live without profiting from someone else's misery? So much of my privileged life is lived at the expense of someone far away who has no choice but to mine the gold for my jewellery in appalling conditions or have their children born with birth defects because of the defoliants used on the cotton my t-shirt is made from, or have their sons die in a war over oil so I can drive my children to the beach, or fly them to Bali for a holiday. Where do you draw the line in that project? I have no idea, I really don't. But I have to start, and I have to ask the questions, so that I will be able to live with myself, and face the children.

PS After writing this I left it for a bit and went and walked the dog. Before we acquired the dog I needed to take long, hot showers to arrive at clarity over difficult problems. But now I have discovered that walking the dog has the same effect. You don't often see that tip in energy-saving manuals. 'Save electricity by getting a dog' - this fact should be more widely disseminated.

Anyway, it has occurred to me that personal angst and guilt, while being one of my most well-worn responses to almost everything in life, are not particularly effective here (or most places, yes, yes). The truth is, I do not know a single person who wants children to be born with birth defects. I did not ask anyone to start a war in the Middle East for me. I do not want chickens to be de-beaked so I can have cheap eggs. I do not not want Pacific island nations to be swept away by rising sea levels. I did not ask for any of this! Governments, institutions and powerful people have arranged my life so that these outcomes are part of 'normal'. Well, not in my name, and not any more! It is going to be bloody inconvenient to rearrange my life so that I am not inadvertently contributing to the death of mockingbirds, but I am going to do it if it takes me my whole life, and I am going to be bloody angry about it as well.

So do watch out for the irritable middle-aged woman, dressed like a bag-lady and walking a dog. She is no doubt having an existential crisis. Probably best to give her a wide berth. Although she is likely essentially harmless she does appear to be muttering a lot..


gretchenjoanna said…
I can't take long hot showers because of the drought. I like to sit by the fire and pray, but of course that doesn't work in the summer, and in the winter I am polluting the air. I've never once considered that I might need a dog, but you make a good case for it.
Judy said…
I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird, despite my elder children reading it as exam material. Even so I am with you Jo. I'm also angry and muttering because of the mockingbirds killed in my name, despite my futile protests. But I guess the point is to keep up the protests, even when it seems hopeless. Just do it anyway because it is the right thing to do.

I met up with a good friend yesterday. She has been fighting to put a wind turbine on her land. It has cost her so much time and money, but the conservative government has turned down 26 out of 28 of the schemes submitted for planning, including hers. It really looks hopeless and she has mountains of work to do to just keep trying, with no one helping her. But she is still trying. She is my Atticus Finch, my inspiration to continue doing what's right regardless.
Anonymous said…
A life spent defending mockingbirds is better than 100 lives spent trying to take them down. Welcome to the muttering baglady dogwalksers of the world association. It is amazing how much clarity I get whilst being dragged behind a desperately excited dog. One day I will remember to take a pen and notebook with me on my daily morning walks but then I will also have to learn to write with my mouth (and while I am avoiding going over a cliff) but you have to start somewhere don't you. Every day we vote with our choices and every day we change the world in teeny tiny little increments. What we say and do DO matter, if only, as you say, to those around us but those around us and rather than feel hopeless about our cause, we should see it as our lives work to be less than superhuman and more than just mindless reactors. I loved this post Jo. I think you should write a book. You have an absolutely brilliant way with words. I am going to pin this post on my "Pause for thought" board on Pinterest. You always give me pause for thought. Thank you :)
Jo said…
Gretchen Joanna, I had never once considered that I needed a dog either, but the children took care of that for me. I do find dog-walking surprisingly meditative.
Judy, it is amazing when we start looking around how many beacons of light there are, giving us an idea of what can be done. What your friend is doing is heartbreaking for her, and just amazing. Dealing with that sort of bureaucratic crap would likely kill me, but she is the trail blazer, and in the future other people will put up wind turbines with no fuss, and will have no idea that it was the good fight fought by your friend which opened the door and smoothed the way for them.
But it is all so ridiculous. I remember a local case where neighbours were objecting to solar panels in a heritage area because they looked ugly. The mayor and the councillors went out to inspect, and the mayor was reported in the paper as laughing immoderately, because all the other houses in the street had roofs covered with giant TV antennas and satellite dishes. They passed the solar panels.
Fran, I am honoured to be inducted into the league of muttering baglady dogwalkers, and am clearly in good company. I love your comment, 'Every day we vote with our choices and every day we change the world in teeny tiny little increments.' yes, you are so right, and it has just occurred to me that not only do we change the world in tiny increments for the better, but also for the worse, depending on what those choices are..
Tracy said…
I suspect the reason Atticus Finch was able to read the night away is that he's a man. And while that sounds sexist, it just seems to be the way of things in many homes, particularly in that era.

I often look at my husband, who gets to come home from work and relax on the couch watching the news and can't help but feel a little jealous. And then I remember I never have to do the laundry and think maybe I don't mind tooooo much. But some days it's hard not to be cranky!

As to mockingbirds being killed our name... We might have small, unregarded lives, and those with the power might organise things in ways we are not happy to condone, but we can make small choices that make a difference. And we can love others. As I have been reading my Bible this year what is leaping out at me is the call to love the lowly, needy and voiceless; the least in our world. A call to love completely, well, without condition, sacrificially, abundantly, generously and practically. We can always choose to act and make life choices in a way that demonstrates that kind of love for those who are often despised or ignored or remain unseen.
Bek said…
I really need to read this book!
You're right, in our insignificant little lives very few of us truly make a worldwide or even community wide real difference. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.
Cathy McGuire said…
Love it! I really feel the same way, and I've come to many of the same conclusions
(my clothes come from goodwill, and they are worn long after others would have tossed them, for example)...
I try to be aware of what choices I'm making and try to make the best one in the circumstance,
but I give myself some leeway when I fail (repeatedly). It's not about beating ourselves up; it's about learning.
When I look back, I see I've made progress (real progress, not JMG's bugaboo false progress)
and I'll just keep trying. Thanks for expressing these thoughts very well.
Unknown said…
OOO I'm so deep in thought from this post. I want to laugh a little, cry a little, definitely read and think a lot. See, you do that to us Jo. Yes Yes a book should definitely be on the agenda.
Jo said…
Actually, Tracy, you are right, he had a wonderful housekeeper who no doubt put the children to bed.
And I think, though I may very well be wrong, that the best I can do in regards to loving others, is to not take any part in a system that degrades, enslaves and disenfranchises those others, ie not buy the $5 t-shirt that caused some cotton harvester in Uzbekistan to give birth to a damaged child..
Bek, you should read To Kill a Mockingbird. It is very funny, which I had forgotten, and thoughtful and wonderful. And yes, trying is all we can do. Because we have to remain true to ourselves, no matter whether it makes a difference or not.
Cathy, it is lovely to see you here. I learn so much from The Archdruid's Report each week, it is making my brain hurt. But in a good way:)
I am hearing you on accepting failure as well - it is something I find hard to allow for myself, which is ridiculous, as I keep telling my kids, failure is where you learn stuff..
Lynda, I am so glad I make you laugh and cry. I love it when my words mean something. All I have ever wanted to do is write, but apart from what I do here, it is difficult to see what I would write, and where. However, I am trusting to fate and the passage of time for clarity on that one.
Hi, Jo -

I found your blog reading the comments on JMG's blog. :)

Your post reminded me of something I read recently on facebook from Jeff Brown

"We must not give up. It takes so much time to heal because we are not just healing our own wounds- we are healing the world’s wounds, too. We think we are alone with our ‘stuff’, but we aren’t. With every clearing of our emotional debris, with every foray into a healthier way of being, with every excavation and release of old material, we heal the collective heart. So many of our familial and karmic ancestors had little opportunity to heal their pains. When we heal, their spirits breathe a sigh of relief. We heal them, too."

I like to think perhaps those of us who are awakening are sending out little ripples.
Jo said…
Tracy, little ripples, yes, tiny ones, but it doesn't matter even if no-one notices.
Lovely to meet you Tracy - I just popped over to your blog, and found an entire page of home made cleaner recipes. Brilliant! I have decided that as each cleaning product runs out, I will experiment with home made ones, so this is a great resource, thanks:)
Anonymous said…
I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird about 5 years ago and saw the movie for the first time. I agree with Tracy; it is much easier to find time to be just when you have paid help! But Scout wouldn't have seen that - she would only remember his good example. I have found that trying to be a good example (through your actions) isn't always sufficient - sometimes it is really necessary to explicitly talk about what you are doing, too.
Jo said…
Well, Dar, talking about what I do is absolutely my strong suit. That's what I do here all the time! In fact I find that writing here, and interacting with all of you in the comments really clarifies my ideas, then I feel I have to do something to justify all the talk. Which is why I love and hate writing this blog. Keeps me honest.
It is interesting though, thinking of Atticus. He was a very reserved person, and in no way was his life an open book to his children. It is actually his neighbour and old friend, Miss Maudie, who interprets his more inexplicable actions to his children. Atticus himself tends to make inscrutable remarks and go back to his book. Which just goes to show, it actually does take a village to raise the children..
Although I guess the whole point of the book is that, when push came to shove, Atticus did indeed stand up and make the speech of his life.
What a beautiful, wonderful post. I am in tears .
Jo said…
Oh honey, I didn't mean to make you cry. But I sit here at my desk typing away all the sadness and the anger, and the perplexity of my small attempts to live a good life, and I'm glad it has made you feel just like I do. All of you who read and nod and cry along and tell me what you think - it heartens me to know that I'm working through these knotty problems in excellent company:)

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