Last Christmas there was a new version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol on television, starring George C. Scott as Scrooge. It was one of the finest productions of this classic I had seen, and I felt impelled once again to read the story which has been universally loved for well over a century. In Dickens' treatment of the trials, failures, and triumphs that occur in daily living, he reveals that the most important force in life is compassionate understanding of our fellow human beings.
One of the most moving statements in this Christmas tale is by Marley's Ghost when despairing over "life's opportunities misused." Scrooge, trembling with fear and beginning to share in Marley's guilt, says: "But you were always a good man of business, Jacob." Upon which the Ghost cried out in anguish:
Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!
These words stand as an eloquent expression of our grand human purpose, suggesting that it is our inner thoughts and feelings, our motives, our priorities, which contribute to making our lives an emptiness or a fullness. What we are in our whole being is so much grander than anything we can measure by surface values. In Goethe's words, "We are shaped and fashioned by what we love." The "comprehensive ocean" brings to mind the vast spiritual resources in ourselves, that ocean of truth within, that we are just beginning to discover. From this standpoint our routine activities in themselves are but a "drop of water" compared to our total duty or "business" as innately caring and responsible human beings.
How easy it is to be caught in a narrow circle of thought, magnify its importance, and through such preoccupation become blinded to matters that need our full attention; or, through a mental block of prejudice or hostility, prevent a mutually happy exchange that might otherwise be possible. In the case of Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge, it was as if they had closed off all sunlight from the small, cold island of isolation each had created. Scrooge receives his first awakening when he learns from Marley's Ghost that the steel chain encumbering him — made of cashboxes, padlocks, heavy purses and the like — is wrought from his material and covetous thoughts. The Ghost further alerts Scrooge that he too must have acquired a chain equally if not more ponderous. We do indeed forge of our own free will every link in the chain of effects that binds us to this earth, and only we can lessen the burden as we awaken to the needs of others with greater sensitivity and understanding. This is part of the evolutionary process we are continuously undergoing.
The genius of Dickens lies in dramatizing Scrooge's gradual inner transformation through the exchange of observations and questionings with Marley's Ghost and the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and To Come. The characteristics of these all-wise Spirits resemble in certain respects the experiences some undergo in intense crises. Sometimes when Scrooge reacts to a situation, the light of the Spirit in attendance grows brighter, as when he feels nostalgia for his "former self" of his youthful days before the girl he loved was displaced by his love of gold, and when with Mr. Fezziwig he was helpful and happy in his work, and entertained "nobler aspirations." The three Spirits visit Scrooge in turn and show him his past, what he is building in the present, and the bleak and friendless future ahead of him if he continues in the direction he is going. He is reminded often of lost opportunities to show charity and love; for instance, for the Cratchit family who so courageously face their deprivations and Tiny Tim's frailty, while the warmth and joy of family sharing more than compensate for their troubles and the leanness of their holiday feast. He is deeply touched by Tiny Tim and asks the Ghost of Christmas Present "with an interest he never felt before," if Tiny Tim will live. "Not if these shadows remain unaltered by the Future," is the answer he receives. He visits everywhere with this Spirit: in almshouses, hospitals, jails; "in misery's every refuge," learning as he goes. Scrooge's conscience is gradually aroused, and his bitterness toward life becomes transmuted into understanding. Aware that people's courses will determine "certain ends," he begs the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come to allow him to change the shadows of the future by a changed life: "Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. . . . I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all three shall strive within me." And as Scrooge said these words, the Spirit's "kind hand trembled."
The crowning point is, of course, Scrooge's triumph. He makes good his promises, helps the Cratchit family and others in need, and he and Tiny Tim become the best of friends. From this moment he sees everything with new eyes for his heart is filled with joy, and wherever he goes on the familiar streets he derives particular pleasure especially on Christmas day!
A Christmas Carol arouses our sympathies and gives hope for humankind. It belongs to this sacred birthtime of the year, a time of beginnings and opportunities, when all things — and people too — are touched by the tide of renewal. As Scrooge's nephew said when his uncle formerly dismissed Christmas and its joyous significance with the words, Bah! Humbug!:
I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come around apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people . . . as if they were fellow-passengers. . . .
Although commercialized and sometimes a superficial observance, this holiday time with its mounting spirit of goodwill and open-hearted sharing is bound to have its effect in the world and on individual lives. A global family of evolving souls, we are linked together, "fellow-passengers" on an endless journey toward an ever broader awareness of our responsibilities to life and to one another. Perhaps the greatest appeal of this masterpiece of Dickens lies in the intuitive perception it awakens in us that compassionate involvement with all humankind has been and will always be our "business."
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1985/January 1986; copyright © 1985 Theosophical University Press)