How does our worldview change as we age? I pondered that question last week as the news broke that HarperCollins would be publishing a new book by Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. The story interested me for several reasons: first the fact that it was such a huge story; as a writer I'm always gratified to see the general public get so passionate about books. The top trending tweets for several days had the keywords "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Harper Lee." And To Kill a Mockingbird is the epitome of success; it won the Pulitzer Prize, has become a classic of modern American literature, and sold 30 million copies, putting it in the top 50 English language books every published. What were Lee's expectations for her "new" novel? What did she hope to achieve? What would be the measure of "success" for Go Set a Watchman, the title of the new book?
I was also fascinated by the story for what it can tell us about the human mind. There was much speculation on the web about what was really going on. Was Harper Lee senile? Could she think clearly enough to give informed consent? Why was this new book being released when, for years, she had fiercely guarded her privacy and maintained that she would never publish another book besides To Kill a Mockingbird? These were all valid questions; Lee is 88 years old, lives in a nursing home, and suffers from hearing and sight loss and other cognitive problems brought about by a stroke.
As someone who has suffered cognitive issues very similar to those caused by a stroke (mine were caused by a Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI), I sympathize with Lee, and understand better than most people what it means to live with an impaired brain. Fortunately for me, I was relatively young when my injury happened, and I have mostly recovered, but I still remember what it was like to have a brain that wasn't working at 100 percent peak efficiency. I also know what it is like to be facing one's mortality. I didn't die, but I suddenly saw the possibility, and it certainly changed my world view.
I have no idea how foggy Harper Lee's brain is. I'm guessing if she is like I was, and like most people who suffer a stroke, a TBI, dementia, Alzheimers or some other brain-related problem, she probably has good days and bad days. And I'm guessing that she is sharp enough to make an informed decision about whether she wanted her book published. If there is one thing I learned about the human brain, it is that there is no such thing as a single, monolithic organ called the human brain. The brain is made up of hundreds of smaller parts, all of which control different parts of our body, and just because one has hearing or sight problems, doesn't necessarily mean one can't think properly. Reports from friends, nursing home attendants and Lee's lawyer say she can think just fine, thank you, so I'll take that as a probable truth.
So if she can think properly, what is going on here? Why the sudden change of heart? I remember caring for my grandfather when he was dying of cancer. He could be an irascible old curmudgeon; he was a tough German-American who had started his own construction company with a borrowed pickup and wheelbarrow, and grown it into an international firm. He also had a rarely-shown gentler side. He loved my grandmother very much and cared for her when she became terminally ill. He took me and my sisters fishing when we were young, and played with us, joking and laughing and having a good time.
But in my teens and twenties, as I became a writer and artist, traveled extensively, moved in with my girlfriend, and generally lived a liberal lifestyle, he and I rarely saw eye to eye. My long hair and beard irked him (he had a brush cut). My refusal to settle down, get a "real job" and start a family was something he couldn't understand (he had an engineering degree and had used it to get an engineering job right out of college; he married my grandmother and had children soon after). But as he approached the end of his life, his attitude toward me changed. I began to receive envelopes in the mail with pastels he had drawn of a bird in his backyard, or of a grizzly bear that he had sketched from a photo I had taken while climbing in Alaska. He had never drawn or painted in his life, but suddenly he decided to try, and sent me the results. I'll never know exactly why he did it, but I think it was at least partly his way of reaching out to me (I had been a painting major in college).
But I think it was also a shift in his world view brought about by a heightened awareness of his own mortality. He was seeing and appreciating the beauty around him. He had finally learned to stop and smell the roses, and paint them. He had finally learned to see, and hear, the birds sing.
I am also a Zen Buddhist, and there is a story of a well-known contemporary Japanese Zen teacher who was fierce and strict with his students (some would almost characterize his behavior as abusive) as he exhorted them to find the dedication and determination to succeed in their spiritual quest. In his later years he mellowed considerably, and it was said that he finally began to enjoy the company of children and animals.
I don't know, because I do not know Harper Lee personally, but I would like to think that Harper Lee's decision to publish this previously unpublished work may stem from a similar process of personal growth brought on by entering the last stages of life. A personal growth that brings about a generosity of spirit, an acceptance of things as they are, and an appreciation for one's own place in the world. Harper Lee's place is as a writer who moves people, who gives them hope, who helps reveal the humanity in all of us. Perhaps she saw that she had one more chance to give her unique gift to the world, and that would be ok. Perhaps she is finally listening to her own heart, the heart that wrote "remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." Perhaps she realized that it would be a sin to kill this book that could sing to all of us. Perhaps age has finally mellowed Harper Lee.
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