“People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.”
--Judge Taylor, To Kill a Mockingbird
This quote, taken at face value, basically points to our argument for practicing awareness.
How we perceive the world is colored by how we’re conditioned and those conditioned lenses determine how and what we see. Accordingly, we’re drawn to things that reinforce our conditioning and avoid, resist, or condemn those things that don’t. For the most part we’re not aware that our vision is circumscribed by our programming. We live our lives comfortably certain that the world is how “I” think it is without realizing that my view of “reality” is not necessarily the only perspective there is. Shielded by our ignorance, we’re insensitive to the sometimes devastating consequences of our blinkered orientation.
In a recent workshop with the Guide, we were invited to explore this lack of awareness and the resulting complicity with conditioning. The events that unfolded in the sleepy town of Macomb, Alabama, surrounding the Finch family and its neighbors served as a foil to bring into awareness this process of ignorance that blinds us all.
In the many illuminating discussions we had regarding To Kill a Mockingbird, two themes stood out for further exploration.
“She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, ‘What would Atticus do?’ passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.”
-- from Go Set A Watchman, sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird
At first blush many of us would feel about Atticus Finch the way Scout feels about her father. He is undoubtedly the “hero” of the story, a man of character, integrity, and principle, “born to do our unpleasant jobs for us.” There are many things about Atticus Finch that we may be drawn to (based on our conditioning of course)—his wisdom, tolerance, courage; his idealism in the face of his pragmatic view of human nature; the trust that he engendered in his children, the respect that he clearly earned from his community, his fearlessness in living his principles. So why are we so averse to the invitation to look at Atticus, not as the embodiment of all virtue but as a complicated human being with his own shades of flaws? Why is it particularly difficult to consider that what we value as noble, good, and perfect may not be absolutely so? What is behind our resistance to examining our positive orientations? If it is all “good,” why don’t we want to subject that epitome of goodness to scrutiny?
To put Atticus Finch on trial, even as an exercise, is perhaps to subject ourselves to a similar cross examination, for isn’t Atticus simply a projection of an ideal of goodness we aspire to but are told we’ll never be? To be open to the possibility that Atticus is not a personification of perfection is to confront the painful likelihood that “I’m not either.” The good/right person, like all identities reflexively resists being scrutinized and vociferously or sullenly finds excuses for itself. Do we defend Atticus because our inner landscapes of identification are so scarred by self-hate that we long for someone who personifies an Absolute beyond the conditional acceptance that we’re subject to? Or is the defensiveness a way to protect the dark secret at the core of our personality, a belief that there really is something wrong with me? (Not just the “something wrong with you” of garden variety self-hate, but a wrong that includes being wrong about what I believe I’m right about.) It is a devastating prospect to be exposed as “wrong,” to have to admit to myself that I’m not good, to confront the possibility that people can doubt my goodness despite my continuous efforts to be the good/right person. Do we avoid the exploration of our beliefs in goodness so that, even if the “reality” of our goodness is in question, we’re at least left with our illusions?
This direction of inquiry simply misses the point!
A belief is simply an idea. Having an idea about something prevents us from having a direct experience of how that something is. In a practice of awareness, we question all beliefs (“positive” and “negative”) as a way to expand our ability to see beyond the limitations of conditioning. In a crucible of compassion, we’re guided through shattering the false identification with who I think I am so I can come face to face with the Goodness that is “all of me,” a Goodness that’s beyond the contest of mere opinions. We deliberately put “beliefs” on trial to reveal the truth of what beliefs obscure.
Putting Atticus Finch on trial is how we shatter the notion that our Goodness can be contested. The process of realizing that “our goodness is already established” can be brutal, but only for the identity on the cross, not for the intrinsic purity that is impervious to the crucifixion. What is destroyed in the prosecution was never real and what emerges intact from it is beyond debate. Authenticity emerges when ego goes on trial and the “good/right person” is exposed as false. Being repeatedly put on the stand in a court of Compassion wears away the belief that what we are is flawed, wrong, and needs to be defended. It takes all our willingness to subject ourselves to this trial by fire but with practice we grow to appreciate its necessity.
At the end of a workshop like the one in which we recently participated, we may no longer blindly idealize or worship Atticus Finch. The “pain” of that loss is what ego uses as a reason to eschew the workshop. But if we’re lucky the results of going through the “pain” is a clarity that holds Atticus in tender acceptance. This shift in vision is the evidence of how much I was changed from my immersion in a court of conscious awareness. My perspective now is able to witness True Goodness rather than just an idea of it.
We can then really relate to these last lines from the book:
“Atticus, he was real nice...”
His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.
“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”
"Mockingbirds don't do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corn cribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
-- Miss Maudie, To Kill a Mockingbird
If we “know” the innocence of the mockingbird, we might not commit the sin of killing it, but does that “knowledge” of its innocence move us to protect it from someone who has no compunction about destroying it? In the instance of failing to act for what cannot act for itself are we not as responsible for the sacrifice of innocence as the person pulling the trigger?
Atticus: “Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom’s jury, but you saw something come between them and reason. You saw the same thing that night in front of the jail. When that crew went away, they didn’t go as reasonable men, they went because we were there. There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads—they couldn’t be fair if they tried.
Jem: “How could they do it, how could they?”
Atticus: “I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep. Goodnight.”
Like Jem, we may keep saying that we don’t know how “they” could do it, but it takes very little reflection to find the examples where “I” did what “they” did. This kind of complicity with conditioning, the kind that stops us from acting from what we “know,” is another powerful place for exploration. It brings us face to face with fear – the fear of standing up to the tyranny of our conditioning. When we accept we are afraid, what shatters is the hubris of the “I” that can be self-righteous but fails to cast the sole dissenting vote in a jury of its peers.
From a self-hating place, that we don’t do the “right” thing is further proof of our inherent weakness, cowardice, and failure to be the “good/right person.” But if we can bring compassion to the inquiry into what causes us to be complicit with cruelty, indifference, intolerance, and hatred, we see the worthy opponent we’re up against. We can find acceptance and compassion for the human being that is tortured in the prison of conditioned mind and constantly taunted by their jailer.
The programming that controls us reduces us to believing that we are inadequate and unable to face the consequences of defying conditioning. This is part of how we’re kept imprisoned. The intensity of the sensations when we approach an action that crosses the ego-control border is sufficient to cause us to turn back. This is why we practice being indifferent to how “I” feels. To have a direct experience of surviving the worst of ego predictions and ego threats is the only way to build confidence that we are more than a match for it, that when it matters, we won’t give it the power over us that has become the norm. No matter how often we try and fail to transcend the fear of going up against the voices, we practice not giving in to the self-hate.
The good news is that we don’t have to take on the “injustice out there” to cast a vote for innocence. We can begin where we are. To free the human being caught in a prison of their conditioning is a giant step to ensuring that Tom Robinson doesn’t get convicted again. That’s how we become the Atticus Finch who can take on Tom Robinson’s case and the indifference of his community; that’s how we nurture the willingness that will spend the night in front of the county jail to head off a mob that is spoiling for violence. That’s how we become the Unconditional Acceptance that can see the humanity of the Ewells, the Cunninghams, the Crawfords, and the Finches and still put conditioning on trial.