A CHRISTMAS CAROL: Published December 17, 1843
Originally published December 25, 2013.
It’s early morning on Christmas. The family is asleep, the presents are wrapped and under the tree, the house is warm and despite a string of lights that have gone out on the tree, I am sitting in the glow of the tree. If I were Ebenezer Scrooge, I would be in the middle of visits from three spirits. I’ve always been fascinated by A Christmas Carol. I’ve read the novella a number of times, and I’ve enjoyed every film and TV adaptation I’ve seen. The odd thing about the adaptations is what some of them choose to cut out. Certainly, the Victorian language of Dickens’ original text isn’t ideal for modern audiences, so updates to the text are understandable. There is one line that I find unconscionable to cut from the story, however. When Scrooge awakens in his room in the early dawn hours, he clutches his bedpost and realizes that he is alive and back in the life he knows. In his relief and excitement and gratitude, he proclaims, “I will live in The Past, The Present, and The Future! The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me!” It’s the central theme of the story, in my opinion; it's the critical awakening that Scrooge is working towards. Without it, Scrooge is simply a grateful man: grateful to be alive, grateful to have the chance to save Tiny Tim, grateful to make someone happy. But the message of A Christmas Carol is in that single line: that we must live in the past, the present, and the future. Always, and in equal measure.
It’s never certain if Scrooge’s visits in A Christmas Carol were the actual spirits appearing to him, or just an imagination run wild by the spirit of Christmas. And as I’m sitting here tonight, I’m beginning to think that the distinction is irrelevant. Because Christmas is a time of birth, when a new life provides us evidence of God’s love and a chance to be forgiven for any past transgressions. Most importantly, it’s a birth that creates possibilities for the future. Religious or not, that’s the underlying message of the season. And it’s a wonderful message. Because we’ve crafted more history and more ritual and more design on this holiday than any other. For the few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we adorn our lives with centuries of tradition. And we shop and we cook and we clean and we visit and we call and we send cards. And all the while, a new year approaches. Christmas is the perfect season for feeling the simultaneous pulls of Past, Present, and Future. Scrooge could have come to those realizations honestly, because on Christmas night, the world truly has retreated. Nothing is open, everyone is home with their families. The highway that runs behind our house is empty; this is the only night this happens. And when the world outside is silent and your family is safe and asleep, and decades of memories fill your head in the light of the Christmas tree… Well, I may not be visited by Ghosts of Past, Present, and Future, but I feel their lessons in my bones.
It’s easy to spot the imbalance of focus in others. We all have friends who live in the past, and spend their lives paralyzed either by trauma or by early peaks. And we all know people who live exclusively in the future, and believe with inviolable faith that better days are coming, despite a total lack of evidence or effort on their behalf. Seeing it in others is easy; finding it in ourselves is difficult. It is for me. I live my life with a dull, nagging sensation that I’m short-changing my life, and for years I could never put my finger on how or why. It has only been recently that I’ve begun to understand why, and tonight, if the Ghosts aren’t visiting, their messages are being heard.
I am destructively co-dependent. My life has been an endless series of attempts to make people love me through my actions. My life has been a series of supplications; a willingness to bend any instinct, will, or desire to the needs or wants of others with the hope that they will eventually love me for it. That they will realize just how aggressively I twisted myself for them, and they will appreciate and love me enough. And when I say “my life has been”, I do not exaggerate. I was this way as a child. I was this way as a teen. I was this way as a young adult. I am old and tired and gray-haired and it is still how I behave. Which would seem sensible if it ever worked. This is not to say people dislike me or that nobody has ever appreciated me. I have often felt appreciated in my life, but a relationship where one party denies their own will – from the start! – is unbalanced. And eventually I find myself twisted into horribly unnatural positions, wishing the other party would see how uncomfortable I was and how unable I was to move to achieve their wishes. And at my moment of collapse, I realize that, in their mind, I have let them down. And being incapable of true resentment, I punish myself.
I’d like to pretend that this is an occasional issue. That it’s a flawed character trait, but if I am to be as honest with myself as The Ghost of Christmas Past would be, it is my character. Period. Every important relationship in my life, every love I’ve ever had, every job that ever mattered, every cause that ever mattered… that is my character. And while we all know people who live their lives in the past, I am not one of them. I avoid the past completely, which frees me to continue the same patterns over and over and over. I’m like the man who keeps playing five numbers in the Pick Six lottery, convinced he’ll win some day. “You have to pick six numbers,” his friends plead, “just like the name says!” But he ignores them. He ignores his past failures. You just need to be patient. It will work one of these times.
If anything, I’m more like Scrooge. My life is firmly embedded in the Present, constantly dancing to other people’s music and trying desperately to keep up. Always trying to infer or presume motivations because the future is too scary. For Scrooge, the future was something to be ignored and feared. He horded money as a defense against it. For me, it’s a place where everyone leaves. Where I’m determined to be unworthy and everyone who matters leaves. And so I spend my life in the moment, desperately trying to understand what other people want and need, burdening myself to the point of collapse, overloading myself to the point of failure. Incapable of prioritization or limit-setting, just working, working, working with the hope that the future I dread never arises. Seeking passion in testing how much I can withstand, not how much I can care. I spend my life hoping for a calm and comfortable and connected future. A future that in my most frightened moments, I recognize is a fantasy. Because nobody plans for a connected future with a pack mule. Pack mules are great for doing what you need done. Pack mules moves things and do what you ask of them. But they have no opinion or no direction. Beneath their strong backbone, they have little of merit to offer.
And so if I’m to have a “bedpost moment” of my own this night, if I am to accept the need to live my life in the Past, the Present, and the Future, it begins with reconciliation of the past. Life needs to be a process of learning and re-arranging based on the lessons we’ve learned. It needs to be a process of growth, not solidifying and deepening the ruts we’ve learned to walk so well. And that shift in perspective requires a change in the way we view the Future. The fundamental flaw in a Future filled with doom is that it presumes the worst in others. Scrooge believed in a future that would require tons of money to support his happiness. Mine presumes everyone is prepared to disappear, and ensures that I am working extensively to stem a tide that – at my core – I don’t believe can be stemmed. And yet, I work. And in the end, I erode the respect of the people I care for most, and when they eventually leave, it confirms my Present-focused beliefs.
When Scrooge awakened, be purchased the largest goose in the butcher’s window. He apologized to the charity-seeking gentlemen and offered back-dated noblesse oblige. He went to Bob Cratchit’s house and provided them with a feast and raised his salary. If I can make changes today, it is to openly apologize. I can’t afford the largest goose in the butcher’s window for everyone in my life, but I can apologize. Apologize for the belief that none of you would be willing to stick around. For the assumption that I meant nothing more to any of you than the sum of my actions. For repeating the same processes over and over until all meaning was eventually sapped from our relationships. More importantly, for killing off whatever part of me you once liked in favor of the mistrustful version that just danced to meet the needs I thought you had.
It’s quiet here. And the kids will be up soon. And as I think about the nature of Christmas, about gifts that forgive and save us, and about the single gift that changes the world, I would love to think my gift to the world could be to live in The Past, the Present, and the Future. To allow the Spirits of all Three to thrive in me. And to believe for a minute that I can stop living in the Present and bring more of myself to everything I do.