I love A Christmas Carol in part for it's comments on personal legacy. Have you considered yours? The shape of our legacy comes into focus by reviewing how we use our resources and what attitudes we hold toward life and our fellow man. If, like Ebenezer Scrooge, the story's main character, you haven't had time to fully consider how those attitudes and choices write the legacy you leave behind then these winter months are good times for reflection.
Art above by John Leech.
In A Christmas Carol, as you may recall, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts/spirits of Christmas past, present and Christmas yet to come. The sights they unveil prompt personal transformation by leading him to a deeper truth and stark encounter with mortality. The experience alters his legacy bringing joy into his final years. In this blog I wonder what past, present and future spirits might share with us in today's complex world and how they could guide us in building our legacy.
The spirit of Christmas past: In A Christmas Carol the coming visitation of spirits is announced by a frightening ghost named Marley. Marley is chained to the earth, we learn, and wanders among men carrying heavy trunks of money---a burden representing the greed with which he lived his life. He is no longer able to change his legacy but he offers the possibility of redemption to Scrooge and warns him to learn from the spirits or forever wander earth with even heavier burdens.
The spirit of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood boarding house where he was abandoned by a grudging father. Unlike Victorian times, when Dickens' wrote the tale, we don't need spirits to teach us how our past impacts our life. For instance, we now know that experience and nourishment in early years influences the very architecture of our brain. The health of the brain's early foundation then effects future development as the brain continues to mature. Our cognitive ability, behavior, physical health, and mental well being are all shaped in part by early experiences. Brain science also finds that brains remain moldable, plastic, throughout life giving us some power to change past neural wiring---power to become who we'd like to be. Since Scrooge's time of course we've also expanded psychiatry and mental health services that help us to change. Robert Taibbi, writing in Psychology Today, somewhat echoes the message of Christmas past saying, "If you know why and how you became the person you are, you now have an opening to begin to change it." We don't all want to change our lives but for those who do this is great news!
The Spirit of Christmas present: This spirit contrasts the joys and opulence of a Christmas morning with the hardships in life. His visit ends with the appearance of emaciated children and a cryptic dire warning about Ignorance and Want. That Victorian theme covering the gap between rich and poor, fed and hungry, safe and unsafe is still relevant today. We don't need a spirit to show us that contrast. We can see it in our cities one block to another. Here a skyscraper and fine clothes. There a man rolled in a blanket--crumbled in a doorway. We see it on the news. Here in America an uneasy peace. There, in other countries, riots, war, refugees, famine, disease, children dying without food. You know what I'm talking about.
In our complex world ignorance and want, the final warnings of the spirit, can create danger and inequalities. Let's look at ignorance in the world today. We're used to thinking of ignorance as stupidity but consider this: Is it ignorance to simply separate ourselves from uncomfortable realities because we want to live a good and undisturbed life? I submit that many and maybe most Americans embrace that goal to one degree or another yet subsequently find themselves turning away from engaging with hard social issues. Furthermore, it appears to me that as the number of unresolved hard issues increase so too do our disagreements with one another. That being said, doesn't it take collaboration to solve our hardest challenges? I'd be interested to hear what the ghost of Christmas present would say about our modern day life because in my opinion we could use a little help down here.
The spirit of Christmas yet to come: This spirit is the most disturbing to Scrooge because it foretells of his death and legacy. He learns that he, like Marley, is thought of as a miser and his life is not missed by those he left behind. Immersed in the encounter he begs forgiveness and asks for a second chance.
We haven't needed spirits to show us the importance of Christmases past or the struggles and contrasts in Christmas present but we would need a spirit to give us a second chance in life. Christmas yet to come is, as Scrooge finds out, in our hands today. Who we are now is how we'll be remembered tomorrow unless we choose to change.
A Christmas Carol closes on Scrooge's transformed life. He is charitable where he was miserly and he engages with social life where he once isolated. He is a happier man. He uses his time and resources to better his world. It's a happy ending befitting this festive time of year.
A Christmas Carol guides us to consider our own legacy. How will we be remembered? More than that though the story connects our personal legacy to broader themes of human experience. It drives home the reality that personal actions and inactions shape our world. What we do as individuals matters. It explores how greed creates poverties, how Bah-humbug attitudes blind us to happy and productive social engagement, how want can prevent us from the rewarding experience of generosity, how self imposed ignorance can separate us from the pride of knowing we helped to improve our world.
It's not likely that the ghost of Marley or three spirits will visit today's world yet they left truths with Scrooge in 1843 that are still relevant: our past shapes who we are, the present needs our help, our legacy is built with the actions we take today, and we all hold the power to change our lives---it's never too late.
May your new year be one of health and happiness, dear reader. Happy holidays!
Update: Dec 18. Another take on A Christmas Carol.
Update Dec 19: Listen to the audio book of A Christmas Carol.