I cry a lot. This weekend, I hosted my church writer’s group. It’s mostly older ladies, all of whom are adorable, a few of whom are allergic to animals, so I woke early on Saturday and spent an hour sweeping, dusting, and airing out traces of my cat Linus. While doing this I played an old This American Life podcast. One of the stories described a woman, dying of cancer, who made a tape so her mentally handicapped daughter would remember her. I was organizing papers; and then in an instant I was crying, which continued long enough to leave my eyes sore for the rest of the day.
This happens not infrequently, and I like to think it’s endearing more than irrational. At the very least it feels healthy, so much so that if I go a week without tears I look for things to make me cry. A good standby is P&G’s Olympic moms commercial, but the catalysts can vary. Things about parents affect me, as do sacrificial acts of bravery. (As a child I was inconsolable when the ant in Honey I Shrunk the Kids died.) The scene in The Help when the church stands to honor Aibileen makes me emotional just thinking about it. My most reliable source of tears, though, is To Kill a Mockingbird, which I’ve read every summer for the past 10 years. I cry every time. This past summer I cried at more passages and harder than ever before.
Lee’s novel is an emotional cocktail of everything that makes me weepy: A parent struggling to do his best, a powerful act of civil bravery, and the scene Kathryn Stockett borrowed from, when the black community stands to honor Atticus passing. That said, for nine years I cried at only one passage, which I won’t relay here or I’ll break down in the coffee shop where I’m writing this. I was always touched by the beauty of the story and characters, not the politics around them. This year marked the first time I saw the civil rights of the 1950s as analogous to the civil rights of today. I was a mess from Tom Robinson’s trial till the end.
What struck me this time was how callously so many characters treated black people. Of course I’ve noticed this since my first reading of the book in middle school, but I never completely empathized. The racism of that era was a horror beyond my experiences; without being black in the 1930s, 50s, and too many places today, I couldn’t really know what it was like. I was always a spectator reading Lee, bothered by the prejudice, but safely removed from it. This year, I internalized the injustice more—as well as the need to stand against it.
Maybe it was the Chick-Fil-A demonstrations, the Facebook statuses denouncing Obama for supporting gay marriage, or the baby store where I worked and where my boss told me my parents must be ashamed of me for being gay. Likely an amalgamation of them all opened my eyes to how callously many individuals still view gay people. In May a pastor suggested rounding up all lesbians and queers and fencing them in until they die. Christians, on the whole, were quiet about this, angrier that the president of their secular government believed gay citizens deserved marriage rights.
I don’t want this blog to take sides, and I hope I respect readers who both support and oppose gay marriage. It’s an issue that deserves a post in itself. I believe, though, that people all across the political spectrum need to follow Harper Lee’s advice, to walk around in someone else’s shoes, in their skin, before they make a rash judgment.
When many Christians think of gay people, they think of leather-clad men on a float in San Francisco. They don’t think of monogamous couples raising foster kids, carrying around powers of attorney in case one partner gets into a car accident and they need to visit him in the hospital. Most of the people who vote against gay rights aren’t voting against someone like me, who spends Friday nights reading or once a month dancing to 80s music with his midwifery friends. They’re usually voting against a stereotype, which is becoming less and less accurate over time. I think more Christians would know this if they befriended more gay people and walked around their shoes.
I believe, as Lee did, that this kind of empathy will cure society of a lot of hate. It’s a belief grounded in the teachings of Moses and Jesus who both championed The Golden Rule, one the most empathetic laws in scripture. Treating others how we want to be treated goes beyond letting our neighbor borrow our car; it’s something to consider whenever we enter a voting booth and cast ballots that very personally affect the lives of others.
After years of abstaining from the divisiveness of politics, I voted for the first time this weekend, partly because of my emotional rereading of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m sure it’s no mystery who I voted for, but I don’t care to mention it, except to say I believed one candidate has walked around in others’ shoes more than the other. This kind of empathy is valuable in all of life, but as we confront a new era of civil rights, I think it’s essential for a decision-making leader. Exactly how our president approaches gay rights matters less to me than knowing he tried to understand the men, women, and children affected by his actions. That’s challenging, emotional work, and I’m not convinced it always places us on one political side or the other. My only hope is whatever we believe and however we vote, we can do it with empathy.