Thursday, December 5, 2013

Who Is Ebenezer Scrooge?

Jacob Marley's ghost. Illustration by John Leech for A Christmas Carol, 1843.


Scrooge knew he [Marley] was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.
--Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol


I had originally intended to write a post entitled "We are all Ebenezer Scrooge" that would point out how we build walls between ourselves and others, and how we share with Scrooge that capacity to wake up and throw the shutters open on a world alive with human beings in their suffering and generosity. The post would have been rapturous. A Christmas Carol is a tale of an awakening heart, but I'm not generous enough right now to write that treatment of the story today. In fact, to do so would seem irresponsible.

If I were even less generous than I am today, perhaps the post would be entitled "Who Needs Ebenezer Scrooge?" Neither his exquisite capitalist ethic, which harms himself and others, nor the redistribution of his wealth either through wage or charity, offer much hope for his world, and to paint everyone with the Scrooge brush winds up making us seem both weaker and more powerful than we really are. Scrooge's awakening shows us the innate hope of our being. Everything Scrooge does, however redemptive or momentarily helpful, provides a shabby model for the day's conflicts.

If Dickens intended a parable about economic disparity between the citizens of his country--and he certainly did--it was a successful and moving story for a time and a place. He wrote a classic of the human heart. In my lack of generosity I wonder how this story could have possibly been equal to the problems of our day. Perhaps some people felt the same way about his story in 19th century England. I suspect Dickens felt that way having completed it, but he was a sanguine fellow and marketed the book to the rich in a sumptuous binding. The message of A Christmas Carol was a targeted one. To sneak it into the minds of the well-off, he made Scrooge look comically twisted. If you had money you could read about him and comfortably know the story wasn't about you.

But this Ebenezer Scrooge character, who is he after all besides a good man doing the best he can? He has scuttled through the streets of London for years fighting for his well-being. He was someone whose sensibilities were honed by the constant knowledge that if he wasn't smarter, thriftier and more diligent than the other guy, he would be ruined. He acted according to the ethic of the day. For all the negative adjectives Dickens heaps upon Scrooge he was a good person doing good things, and it led to a terrible mess. We are good people doing good things, too. It's in this commonality that I'm more comfortable today saying we are all Ebenezer Scrooge. As conflicts about our social values arise we start to see ourselves as good people who are starting to wonder just what we're up to.

That word "good" starts to sound hollow, almost an indictment against us that however brave and decent and hard working we have been it hasn't gone in the best direction. As far as our "goodness"--which is not the same as our miraculous nature that throws the shutters open in the morning and asks the world what day it is--that, too, comes into question, and it isn't a matter of having given enough to others; it is a matter precisely of what we have given and to whom, and whom we have met in life and feared the most simply because of their presence. Whom have we excluded?

In Scrooge's case those people were everyone including his family. His old business partner, Marley, seven years dead, seems to have been the last person with whom he had a functioning relationship. Chain-clad Marley appears as the ghost who introduces Scrooge to a process of spiritual awakening, and he does so by abandoning Scrooge to see his life no longer defined by his good values but as bound by fear and the inevitable loss that fear creates. By morning in the story questions of goodness have vanished along with Scrooge's nightmare of past, present and future. All that is left for Scrooge is enlightened action.

The Christmas goose the reformed miser delivers is a miracle in the story. In real life that's a miracle too, but one easily becoming a gesture, the temporary most we can do, and if we do it often enough we would expect payment. We have barely showed up for the Christmas punch and we're already hustling through the streets, trying to survive, pushing others out of the way. These are the circles we live in, and we have wound them into tighter and tighter knots since Dickens wrote.

I write this out of hope as much as out of despair that every one of us is Ebenezer Scrooge, we can wake up and it will matter.

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