For those of us who celebrate Christmas in any way, or are at least somewhat touched by the sentiments of the season, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens is hauntingly emblazoned into our collective memory. Treatments of the original novella, in the form of books, plays, movies, animated videos and various re-interpretations are as ubiquitous as holiday wreaths and candles. Almost two centuries after its publication in 1843, this tale is undeniably integrated into our cultural “operating system” and its moral guidelines.
The message of the story is simple – be kind and generous, and redemption and salvation await. The greedy and avaricious protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge, undergoes a transformation from vice to virtue over the course of three visits by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future.
On the surface, this is the story. But Dicken’s brilliance in crafting a narrative that is among the most world-renowned classics is in his detailed and interweaving characters, their archetypes, symbolism and the edification they might impart. They might; but not necessarily.
I consider myself a thinker, and I endeavor to express the work of that thinking in writing. In 52 years of life and probably 47 of exposure and re-exposure to this story, I will never be done learning, like all of us, so I thought I might help move the discovery dialogue forward.
For instance, how can it be that the celebrated, tear inducing core lesson – “be kind and generous” can be so universally ratified by a culture that simultaneously pays homage to greed and excess? The overt cruelty of Scrooge is addressed to a large extent, but let’s leave the possibility open that it’s been replaced by covert cruelty.
Do we pay homage to greed and excess? Our presidents write books that make them disproportionately rich, even while the population grows poorer, we elevate them with our time and dollars. Our entertainers and athletes make salaries in multitudes of entire lifetime earnings of their fans, we elevate them with our time and dollars. And CEO’s of the big corporations are deca billionaires by the dollars of the same legions of Dickens fans that claim to agree kindness and generosity are the correct bearing on the moral compass. They directly countermand the message of this morality tale, and yet, we celebrate them with our attention, our admiration and our dollars. Why?
Can we even fathom a culture in which excess money is considered as shameful and repulsive as extremes in excess eating, drinking, or other addictions? Because there is an argument in favor of excessive wealth and its hoarding, along with the hoarding of the power it brings.
An old “mentor” of mine was a deca millionaire, maybe centi. He didn’t go to college. He did it in business and real estate. He tried to make me a disciple. I did want enough wealth to do the work I wanted to, and not the work in which I felt my offerings were being squandered. The con of working your life away while your talents are laid to waste would not be my fate. So, I tried to cull the “good” parts of financial success from the greedy parts … this proved to be a financially costly but philosophically profitable venture.
Much craftier than Scrooge, my mentor was jovial and domineering, more like a PT Barnum, exciting you about how well we would all be doing if we’re successful in growing the company. Masquerading as “Fezziwig” and perpetrating like Scrooge, you might say. But as you examined things from afar and over time, it became increasingly evident that he was the disproportionate beneficiary. Not that he should not have done well, but those who were operationally instrumental were either intentionally burned out or merely surviving. One Scrooge and 200 Cratchits.
In many ways this was and is the great defining philosophical war of my life. He said “I’m a cynic. You’re either getting f—– or you’re doing the f——.” In other words, kill or be killed. It was experiencing this that helped me understand the corrections I could design in this flawed philosophy. It’s important to note that this erstwhile mentor, was thriving, personally on this philosophy. See he wasn’t concerned about changing the world, he was only concerned with winning in that world. This helped me realize that if you are successful within a dysfunctional system, you might be part of the dysfunction, but if you are successful AGAINST a dysfunctional system, you might be part of the cure.
The wisps of winter on London streets that inspired Dickens in 1842, persist to beckon our intellects for more … to build upon Dickens’ masterpiece … to continue discovering more … a better balance. One that doesn’t force a choice between prince and pauper but one that yields an organic distribution of wealth and power commensurate with societal benefit and individual work. Call it the Great Equilibration. An obvious advancement past the limits of capitalism or socialism … a better design than either by itself. So, we stop this archaic and fruitless argument about centuries old philosophic technologies and design, together, something better.
We might start with the children who The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals beneath his robe – Ignorance and Want. I’ve always paused at this reference.
“Spirit! Are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are man’s,” said the spirit, looking down upon them. “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.” cried the spirit, stretching out its hand toward the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide in the end.”
Not an easy interpretation upon first glance, or even when hearing again and again each Christmas … but we can use the ideas being conveyed to build upon.
Ignorance is the default. We are all ignorant of how to achieve homeostasis in the citizen body (peace on earth). If we weren’t, we would have achieved it and would know how to maintain it. We don’t. What we have is a stabilizing illusion of opportunity that sustains the deprived via hope. Any claims of “the answer” disrespect the reality that we are all lacking answers as evidenced by extreme imbalance.
The Ghost of Christmas Present states that we should beware most of the boy (Ignorance), and that “Doom” is written on his brow. Ignorance will be our undoing, he predicts. So, wisdom might be the opposite of ignorance, yes? Is it possible wisdom is the balance we seek as the citizen body as our own bodies find homeostasis?
The girl named Want stands with or in opposition to Ignorance? Want can be healthy. But perhaps Dickens meant it in the sense of the want of deprivation. But he could also have intended it more as greed. Therefore, both states, the state of ignorance, and the state of want can be too little or too much. Some ignorance, spurs curiosity and pursuit of knowledge … and some want fuels action toward improving living conditions. But too much ignorance and we miss reality to the point of detriment … too much want and we morph into greed. Interesting that Dickens chose “Ignorance” as the more urgent problem in the future of humankind.
Whatever his intentions in these lines, we can build an operating system that recognizes the perils of excess ignorance and want, if that were his intent, or the ignorance of under education and want of basic sustenance. Either way, Dickens handed us an elegant portrait and symbols of bugs in the human operating code that we’ve had 178 years to improve upon.
Like any problem to solve, it’s often decades of trying before a breakthrough. Well, the breakthrough thought is that we compartmentalize sentiment and reality to our detriment, and it’s time we marry them. In building a better operating system (philosophic technology) we can start to merge the talk with the walk. It starts with tearing out the wiring of our old comfort configurations – the ones that allow us to be greedy in real life, elect greedy narcissist to lead us, and worship greedy celebrities, all fueled by ignorance, and simultaneously get our catharsis from literature that decries how we live and aspire to live.
In this new code … we write:
“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are all of ours. And their names are Truth and Balance. And as long as we take care of them, they will take care of us. The citizen body will continue to grow. If we neglect them, we will grow imbalanced, diseased and eventually perish.” The spirit moved its hand toward the city …
Art is made to beget art. And the ultimate work of art is the process of health and growth. What a glorious time to be alive to have the modern tools of the information age to use toward this end.
“God bless us, every one!” said Tiny Tim, the last of all.
– Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol” 1843