Heroes are a necessary ingredient of every happy childhood.

Whether you grew up loving the deeply flawed billionaire-slash-playboy-slash-philanthropist-slash-superhero in Marvel’s Tony Stark, warding off Death Eaters alongside Harry, Hermione, and Ron, or debunking sexist myths one kick at a time with Mulan, we all went through the trials and tribulations of our childhoods under the comforting shadow of a hero to look up to.

As a certified bookworm, it came as no surprise that my hero growing up came from the world of fiction. More specifically, the world of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.

In the charming town of Maycomb, set against the bucolic beauty and social cobwebs of the American South, I found a hero worth aspiring to in the protagonist’s father, Atticus Finch – a man hailed as the American, and literary, archetype of goodwill, fatherhood, and fairness.

When Atticus stood up for his daughter, Scout, before his intolerably sexist sister, Aunt Alexandra, I jumped with joy. When he unflinchingly took upon the feat of defending a black man accused of raping a white girl in what was then the most scandalous case the town had ever seen, my chest swelled with pride. While he stood vigil outside his defendant’s prison cell to protect him from getting lynched, I teared up. And when he dejectedly returned from shooting a rabid dog running rampant around town when no one else would, my eyes widened with admiration.

In short, I wished to be Atticus Finch.

In every word of wisdom, every act of selflessness that cost him more than he gained, every iota of empathy he extended to both friend and foe, I found myself unknowingly crafting a hero out of one of literature’s most beloved characters. In the racially and politically polarized world I reached young adulthood in, I found a role model in Atticus; though far from being as woke as the world needed to be, he embodied the perseverance of goodwill in a world where one’s dedication to justice could jeopardize their lives.

In short, I wished to be just as moral, just, benevolent, empathetic, progressive and unapologetically badass as Atticus Finch.

Until I crossed paths with its controversial sequel, Go Set A Watchman.

Ignoring the word of bitter reviews and disappointed critics, I dove headfirst into the world I had found my hero in at the age of 12, only to now find him abysmally changed.

Gone was the Atticus who stuck his neck out to defend Cal from his sister’s racist diatribe, he now rejected his connection to her. Gone was the Atticus who loathed the vitriol of men like Ewell, he now fraternized with them in weekly White Citizen’s Councils, condoning their ‘protectionist’ racism. Set about 20 years after To Kill A Mockingbird, this Atticus was 20 light-years away from the man I’d idolized all these years, used as a litmus paper for right and wrong, and watched Gregory Peck’s gorgeous take on the character at least a hundred times for since.

My hero worship was exposed, stripped down and left shivering on the floor. Much like Scout, I felt the bitterness of betrayal stronger than any remorse for my own blindness.

How malleable are our values?

See, the allure of fiction is its ambiguity; you can play around with its characters until you’ve unknowingly built your own. It’s a reductive thing to say, but that’s what I did with Atticus.

It’s human nature to take objects and people and canonize them to the point where they no longer resemble reality. We forget that our heroes can err, and err badly. In fact, we forget that they’re human, too. No character in literature or cinema ever was perfect. For me, Atticus was an exception.

Or so I had thought.

With the same devotion to principle and justice, Atticus defends white paternalism. He wields the same wisdom that evoked the black community of Maycomb to rise in respect, to justify his altered views on desegregation to Scout. Who takes none of it, might I add.

How malleable are our values, then? I began to ask. Can what was once exerted in the way of good suddenly become an instrument of wrong the next minute? Are those values even values anymore?

I was stumped. If the morally upright Atticus can stumble in the changing world of the 1950s, I would probably fall face-first at the first sign of change.

It was an existential travesty. I think I wept for three nights straight.

But now I know it was for the best.

Racism, hate crime, and xenophobia are no less prevalent today than they were in the world of Finches and Radleys. The world continues to look at these issues through a one-dimensional lens controlled by its perpetrators, dismissing the perspective of its victims, those who belong to underrepresented and marginalized communities like my own. But this has slowly begun to change. We have moved the mic away from the Atticus’ of our time to the Tom Robinson’s, the Calpurnia’s, and the disillusioned Scout’s. And if to get there, we must break out heroes and go through an emotional pitfall that involves questioning your closest-held values, so be it.

Our world is flawed, and despite our best efforts, so shall our heroes be.

Atticus is not the hero I thought he was, but he might have been just the hero I needed. He taught me to be unapologetic at the age of 12, and now, he’s taught me to be wary of what I idolize. It is far better for me to set a watchman for human fallibility than dismiss it and remain in a comfortable space where heroes are perfect and we, their imperfect followers.

Heroes are aspirational, sure, but to love a hero doesn’t entail emulating their every move. It often just means learning from their mistakes. And although this self-realization doesn’t vindicate Atticus for his inexcusable racial protectionism, it does vindicate me for thinking he was the ideal.

He has left me with a gaping hole in my heart that yearns for the simplicity of To Kill A Mockingbird, but ours is not a simple world. I won’t stop admiring Atticus despite his flawed and frayed glory, but I will finally leave him and my hero-worship behind in the pages of Go Set A Watchman. It is a sacrilegious deconstruction, but a necessary one. One that ensures I do not become another Atticus Finch myself.

Our world is flawed, and despite our best efforts, so shall our heroes be.

Shizah Kashif

By Shizah Kashif

Editorial Fellow

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