When my mother got up at 1 or 2 a.m., I was still watching the movie. She saw the light coming from the television room. Mystified, she would lament at my obsession with the 1951 black-and-white film of Charles Dickens masterpiece A Christmas Carol.
I was as perplexed as she by my excessive interest in this story. Now, after 50 years, I understand the film was a message of great significance from my past to my future.
Children have great depth. Even without consciously perceiving the core truths that underlie their journeys through life, they recognize the stories, poems and films that can supply them with answers. In the profundity of a child’s sacred loneliness they ask, “Why was I born?”
Each person has to discover their own unique answer to this question.
But there is also a general answer. We are here to change. Taking the rich, raw material of our genetics, coupled with the events that severely impact our experience, are the materials we use in the development of our souls.
Charles Dickens’ story of the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from a terrible person to a magnificent one can supply for all of us a blueprint for change.
Anyone reading this who is not familiar with the story must stop reading immediately and go rent the film or read the book (available online). Then, come back.
Mr. Dickens was motivated to write this story at the onset of the Industrial Revolution in Europe when the current economic crisis really began. There was a time when greed and the desire for gain was not the ruling force. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, people worked way less and celebrated way more. The mental illness called “depression” was discovered and named only after the Industrial Revolution changed the core values of nations of people. The new ways made folks sad. The rich got very rich, the poor got very poor.
Dickens saw his family decimated when his father was sent to Marshalsea Prison in 1824 for owing a debt of £40 and 10 shillings. Forced to leave school at the age of 12 for a job in a factory, Dickens, who was previously not working class, encountered the horror of a world where people were virtual slaves in the service of a growing worship of and need for more and more money. Prisons, workhouses and factories with treadmills on which hungry human beings ran like gerbils for 12 hours per day to produce cheap energy, proliferated. Street urchins roamed the city in tattered clothes begging for food. The lucky children, who at least earned enough money to eat, worked tedious hours on end in factories with horrendous conditions since no laws prohibiting the exploitation of children existed.
It is no wonder that, with this backdrop, Dickens invented the character of Ebenezer Scrooge who represented the everyman, who was greedy and needed to change. It certainly would have been wonderful if Bernie Madoff had been visited by three spirits who could have turned him away from greed toward a concern for the well-being of others. Mr. Madoff is a great example of Scrooge’s story in horrific reverse. Years later the results from his actions continue to reverberate from the past into the future, resulting recently in the death of his first born son. Had Madoff been visited by the spirit of Christmas future and seen that in this holiday season his child would commit suicide because of his monumental disdain for the welfare of this fellow man this tragedy might have been averted. This is a story for our times more than ever.
The Spirit of Christmas Past
Over the course of only one night, beginning with a visit from a dead business associate, Scrooge’s main task is to believe in the unbelievable; in other words, to have faith. Jacob Marley screams, “Do you believe in me?” and out of shear terror of the ghost, Scrooge believes.
The overriding task through all visits from the three spirits is that of self-observation, beginning with what can only be learned from the past. Scrooge sees the wounds from his childhood and his heart softens towards himself. Can any of us really have compassion for others and not love ourselves? Is this not the task of most modern day therapies, beginning with the theories of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Alice Miller; to understand what was done to us as children and to learn to embrace our story with empathy for the little child we once were?
In subsequent scenes from the past, Scrooge sees, as a result of his childhood wounds, how his heart hardened and how he missed one opportunity after another to love and to be loved. It is clear, as Scrooge observes himself making ugly mistake after mistake, that the business of self-observation is painful but necessary.
The Spirit of Christmas Present
“The past is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and the present is a gift, that’s why they call it a present.”
Can you imagine flying around in the winter’s cold air, having the faith that you will be held aloft by merely touching the sleeve of a ghost? As if this discomfort isn’t enough, you are also listening to people you know talking about you behind your back and they hate you. This is the horror of seeing yourself not as you see yourself, but as others see you. I say a resounding, “Oy Vey!” to that! Nevertheless, comfort and complacency do not inspire the desired change as much as shocks to the ego do.
Since we cannot change the past or know the future, it is only in this present moment, this exact instant, that anything can happen, for the good or the bad. Therefore, choosing the good is urgent right now. It’s only in the present that any action can take place.
Bad habits have to be abandoned in the present moment when the desire to succumb to them occurs. That’s why New Year’s resolutions fail. We make the resolutions for the future and then forsake them in the present. Scrooge is shown what must change if others are to love him. He sees that he must begin now or the opportunity will be gone. That’s the gift; the blessing of being alive right now. The good can be chosen though the miracle of free will.
The Spirit of Christmas Future
Christmas future? That’s death; the great equalizer, the grim reaper. After all, without death why would any of it matter? The stopwatch is clicking away. Eventually it will be too late. If living with that reality isn’t upsetting enough, we don’t even know when the final moment will occur.
I really appreciate that the Ghost of Christmas Future did not threaten Scrooge with hell or promise that if he changed, he would be rewarded by heaven.
The late great mystic Abraham Herschel was asked just months before his death if he believed in life after death. He said, “It’s none of my business. It’s my business what I do today and God’s business what happens to me after I die.”
This was the attitude of the Ghost of Christmas Future as he showed Scrooge scenes from this world, the world of the still living, revealing the consequences that would occur in the future if he did not change his behavior. It would be a lonely death with no one in attendance at his funeral, among other horrifying results. His char lady removing his bed curtains and nightgown when his corpse was barely cold and selling his belongings to a pawnbroker. Then the ghost led him with a pointed skeletal finger towards his own grave stone. Scrooge moans and falls upon the headstone screaming. I can’t imagine anyone’s molecules not restructuring after a shock like that.
I remember waiting all alone in my little television room for my favorite part of the film to begin. Scrooge wakes up the next morning in love with life, full of the Christmas spirit, “merry as a school child,” full of exuberance giving exorbitant amounts of money away to nearly everyone. He dances too; an overnight success story.
Elliot Gilbert in his article “The Ceremony of Innocence: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol” debunks the story by asking the reader to confront “The Scrooge Problem.” He quotes Edmund Wilson’s famous essay entitled, “The Two Scrooges.” “Shall we ask what Scrooge would actually have been like if we followed him beyond the frame of the story? Unquestionably, he would relapse when the merriment was over, if not while it was still going on. He would fall into moroseness, vindictiveness and suspicion.”
“Humbug,” say I.
This is a fantasy. It is true that in so-called real life change doesn’t happen over night. True transformation is a laborious lifelong process of three steps back, two forward or if one is lucky, three steps forward and two steps back.
One must believe at this time of the year, for all of us, whatever our religion, that change, no matter how difficult, is possible. What would be the point of all the great books, philosophies, psychologies, arts? Why would we try so hard to raise our children with values? What then is the purpose of meditation, contemplation and religious ritual if not to make oneself a better being? To become loving and kind, to accrue wisdom is what makes life meaningful after all.
This is not an easy task, but it is “The Task.”
So here I sit, in my little house, in the hamlet of New Paltz, in present time, at the end of the year 2010, thinking about the end of the story which expresses my aspirations for myself and all the citizenry here this holiday season.
“Scrooge was better than his word. He became as good a friend, as good a master, as good a man as the good old city ever knew, or as any other city in the good old town or borough ever knew. And to Tiny Tim who lived and got well again, he became a second father, and it was always said that he knew how to keep Christmas as well as any man alive possesses the knowledge. May that be said of us and all of us, and so as Tiny Tim observed, “God bless, us everyone!”