What I Learned This Year Seeing A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens’ acclaimed masterpiece of redemption, A Christmas Carol, remains my favorite piece of fiction. It seems as if it never goes out of style. Everyone who admires great storytelling find virtues in Dickens’ story of how a miserly old businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge, finds his humanity one cold Christmas night when visited the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.

Actor Alastair Sim in the 1951 film adaptation of A Christmas Carol

Actor Alastair Sim in the 1951 film adaptation of A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol works equally well as a play adaptation of the novella. On the stage and page, it tells both the story of a real time and place when there was great income inequality and poverty in England, and a universal tale of a man realizing he has squandered his soul in the pursuit of profit at the expense of the people and society around him. That narrative is as suited for today as it was when Dickens first published his celebrated work in December 1843.

“You only have to look around our society and everything he wrote about in the 1840s is still relevant …,” says Dickens scholar Claire Tomalin. Scrooge also remains to this day Dickens’ most beloved character, likely because of his universality to all people, everywhere.

As a play for the stage, when done in the hands of even half-competent actors, the story stirs up emotions that pull at the hearts of people of all ages, from the very young to very old. I have seen all ages at every production I have attended from Anchorage to St. Louis and places in between—everyone can find something in this ghost story. As of this year’s staging, I have been seeing it performed live for well over 30 years.

In  less than two hours, stage adaptations of A Christmas Carol let an audience follow one man’s full life from a lonely school boy to a happy apprentice to a failed husband to a successful but wretched businessman. At the end of his life, our unlovable Scrooge is a miserable babbler who eats gruel alone on Christmas Eve with no one to share life’s journey.

The scenes of Scrooge’s loneliness evoke the strongest emotions, for me at least. It makes me think of the struggles so many people go through, coping with life’s challenges at every stage of the journey as well as mental illness and the loss of loves past. Even in his moments of cruelty, it is hard to not feel empathy for our greedy protagonist forced to confront the meaning of his life and of life itself on this most famous of ghostly nights.

Dickens’ genius is how he forces the audience to find an unlikeable person likeable. That challenge is made all the harder by the brilliance of Dickens’ language.

A scene from the Classical Comics graphic novel interpretation of A Christmas Carol.

A scene from the Classical Comics graphic novel interpretation of A Christmas Carol.

Writes Dickens: “But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

Why should anyone like Scrooge? Why should we stick up for such cruel people and defend their behavior? Why shouldn’t we speak critically of people like him, in front of them or when they are not close by?

What I Took Away Watching A Christmas Carol this Year.

I just saw a production of A Christmas Carol, put on by the Portland Playhouse. The play is one that facility’s yearly stalwarts. It works beautifully because the converted wooden church is a cozy, compressed space. The stage sits below two seating areas that rise above where the actors make magic with the had of the production crew.

Fake smoke, authentic costumes, and expert lighting evoke far-off London, at a time when orphaned children, criminals, destitute persons and contagious disease were common in the Victorian era mega city. It was a world Dickens knew too well as an insomniac and prodigious walker, who observed every shade of humanity and its filth on London’s streets at night.

Actor Patrick Stewart plays Scrooge and Dominic West plays Scrooge's nephew, Fred, in the 1999 TNT adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

Actor Patrick Stewart plays Scrooge and Dominic West plays Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, in the 1999 TNT adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

This year I was drawn to a part of the story I may have been overlooking in past years. I loved the way Dickens developed the plot that ultimately forces Scrooge to see himself. Poor Scrooge is allowed to eavesdrop on how others truly think and speak of him courtesy of the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future. This is the test most of us may dread the most, to know the bare and cruel truth how our peers think of us and how we are measured in this world.

Scrooge is taken by the Ghost of Christmas Present to the home of his estranged nephew, Fred, perhaps the one man who has the greatest space in his heart for his embittered uncle. While others speak unkindly of Scrooge, Fred stands up for him: “‘He’s a comical old fellow,’ said Scrooge’s nephew, ‘that’s the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.'”

I thought more deeply about these scenes this year because I think of the tests we all face, nearly every day. Are we authentic when others are not in earshot? Just how would each of us fare, were spirits to take a colleague, coworker, or friend into our homes and hear our private conversations?

What would we sound like speaking of the flaws and deeds of another? Would we be charitable to those we disagree with, even dislike, like Scrooge? Would we belittle others because they are not listening? Or would we be Fred, who wishes his mean uncle no ill will even as others chide the miser?

Fred is the only person in A Christmas Carol who defends his uncle, Scrooge.

Fred is the only person in A Christmas Carol who defends his uncle, Scrooge.

This test is one we face everyday, because it is a true measure of our characters. Do we change our songs in the company of others, or do we hold true? Do we prevent others from saying bad things about people not in our company to garner laughter or an advantage at their expense?

I think Dickens was keenly aware of this weakness, this utterly human shortcoming, which he put on display as he tests Scrooge and forces him to confront the truth that his life may have no meaning because of the path he took. There is so much here to unpack, to cry at, to laugh at. I did watching the play, as usual.

This time, during the play, I kept thinking about two people I know.

One is a coworker, who changes their character depending on the company they are with. One moment it is warm and polite, the next it is cruel and critical, and all for momentary and illusory gain that brings nothing. The other person I thought of is one of my best friends, who I admire more than he knows. The entire time I have known him I have never seen him once speak ill of others, even with those he finds problems with. When I speak to him about my own worries, I find that I can no longer hold even my momentary grudges against people who have been unfair to me. He wrings my bitterness out of me.

Your Mission This Christmas and Beyond

So, my friends, this year, I challenge you to have the courage that Scrooge had in the hands of his ghostly ambassadors. When you are in the company of others, and you hear a nasty thing said, do not let that moment pass. Imagine  if the slighted party, whomever it may be, is watching in the room, like Scrooge was as an invisible witness.

Show goodwill. Speak kindly. If you do this from your heart, you might never have to be like Scrooge, alone and unhappy in his older years, realizing so late he had wasted so much of his life.

Would it not be better to be like Fred, who never gave up on his uncle.

As Dickens writes, upon seeing the changed Scrooge in his home on Christmas day, Fred embraces him: “Let him in! It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier. … Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, wonderful happiness!”

Learning by the decades

I just celebrated my birthday.  The day always gives me pause. It forces me to think about what I am doing with my life and what I have learned.

I thought about the important things that emerged over the 10-year increments that I have lived on this world. Here are a few of the big “aha’s” that stuck with me and have made me a better and smarter person.

Rudy as BabyDecade 1 (0-9 years): This was a scrappy period. I learned that I could take care of myself even in situations that were unpleasant. The resilience I learned as a kid has given me the ability to overcome challenges and persevere when the going gets tough. This was a great life skill to master, and I was lucky I had the (mis)fortune to internalize this lesson early on.

Decade 2 (10-19): This was the period when I learned from mentors. My greatest teachers were guys who gave me a chance and allowed me to work for them, and get real-world life skills and also much needed cash. I was lucky to have two very generous business owners and bosses. Everything good I learned about how to run a business I learned from these two men, who decided to give me a lucky break.

Decade 3 (20-29): This was the decade I first learned about the world first-hand and saw how much we all have in common. No matter what country I found myself or how poor or wealthy the residents were, people were genuinely good to me if I treated them with respect and an eagerness to learn about their culture, language, customs, and religious traditions. The world really is a wonderful teacher.

rogerandmeDecade 4 (30-39): This was the decade I learned that life can provide you wild surprises, and what matters in the face of curve balls is how well you deal with rapid change and crisis. I reinvented myself a few times during this decade and did not allow these sideways detours to keep me from moving forward.

Decade 5 (40-49): This was the time when I learned again about the meaning of life, from the example of a wonderful person I knew who taught everyone around him how to live a good life. I made some adjustments for the better and doubled down on my goals to live even more purposefully than before.

Rudy-MaryAnne Rhododenruns
Decade 6 (50 … ): This is an open chapter, and I am learning more about letting slowly go of people I know and care about. But this particular journey this decade has only just begun, and there will be time to write the final chapter many years later.

Learning the power of forgiveness and why it mattered the rest of my life

At some point in all of our lives people will do bad things to us, intentionally and unintentionally. This may happen many times, in fact. And these can be awful things. They can be crimes. They can harm our family and friends. They can disrupt and destroy our lives. The victim will then have many choices to respond. Among the most powerful and liberating of all responses to injustice, violence, and evil is forgiveness.

President Abraham Lincoln, an ardent practitioner of forgiveness.

President Abraham Lincoln, an ardent practitioner of forgiveness.

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong,” said Mahatma Gandhi, a man of peace who also was murdered in 1948 by a fellow Hindu for his efforts to reconcile the violence that divided the Indian Subcontinent between Muslims, Hindus, and other faiths as the British pulled out of their Indian colony. President Abraham Lincoln, one of the world’s most revered leaders, also deeply embraced a philosophy of forgiveness while trying to lead his country out of a system of slavery and through the nation’s most bloody war. During his famous and searing Second Inaugural Address, prior to his assassination on March 4, 1865, he called for the warring sides to embrace forgiveness. When urged to punish the violent slaveholding South, Lincoln responded, “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” And, like Gandhi, Lincoln too was killed, by a Southerner who considered him a traitor.

Clearly, forgiveness is not easy, and some of its most ardent practitioners have met with violent ends. “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth,” writes philosopher Hannah Arendt. “The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense.” The Christian gospels written in the years after his crucifixion are premised on the very notion of Jesus’ ability to forgive his tormenters. According to the Gospel of Luke, 23:34, the dying Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Again, another practitioner of peace, killed.

Source, Forbes

President Nelson Mandela (source, Forbes)

Former South African freedom fighter, prisoner, and president Nelson Mandela chose to embrace forgiveness as a tool of reconciliation to heal his nation after decades of the racist Apartheid laws that relegated non-whites to second-class status and excluded them from all forms of politics, education, and economic opportunity. After his release from Robben Island, he took many actions to heal the wounds the could have erupted in more bitter violence that was seen in neighboring countries like Mozambique and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). As Barbara Mutch, a white South African noted after Mandela’s death in 2013, “Nelson Mandela sat down with his enemies and forgave them and moved on. And in doing so, he rescued his country, and he rescued each one of us, and gave us hope that there could be a future for our beautiful, fractured land. And for the greater earth that we all share.”

For me, my moment of action came when I was 18. I had finished high school and was working to save as much money as I could for college that hot summer in University City, Mo. I knew that this marked a pivotal transitional point in my life. I wanted to begin my journey was a clean slate, free from the baggage I carried from my earlier years. I wanted to explore a new path and forge a destiny  that broke from the past. I knew the most important thing I could do for myself was to let go of what I harbored against someone who caused great pain and hurt to me and my family and to themselves, in ways that I still cannot forget.

The only one who could really control the outcome of this experience was me. I had to own it for what it was. That meant I had to own accepting what had happened, and more importantly, letting it off my back and from my heart and soul. I remember the long drive I made on a hot August day with a stranger to Cleveland. I confronted the person who had done many wrongs. I told that person, with great sincerity I felt inside, that I forgave them for what they had done. I meant it. And then, a day later, I took a long bus ride back to St. Louis. Within two weeks I was in Portland, Ore., starting a new life in college, charting a new path that I would define and that would not be defined by this person or the experiences resulting their actions earlier in my life.

It was one of the most important moments I have ever had. I never forgot what it did for me and the party I forgave. Within three years, that person would be dead, and that chapter in my life would be closed.

According to Howard Zehr, the author of The Little Book of Restorative Justice, “Forgiveness is letting go of the power the offense and the offender have over a person. It means no longer letting that offense and offender dominate. Without this experience of forgiveness, without this closure, the wound festers, the violation takes over our consciousness, our lives. It, and the offender, are in control. Real forgiveness, then, is an act of empowerment and healing.”

Years later I am struck by what I gained during the few days in my life when I was striving to define who I wanted to be, and doing that through intentional deeds with a clear mind and a clear sense of purpose.

Some days still I lose focus. I stray from my path. I am tempted to go to a place that I know Lincoln and Mandela would not want to be. At those moments, I go back in time to that place when I became the kind of person I always wanted to be. Then I find the strength to do the right thing, even when it is perilous, as so many good persons have learned.