Be a Scrooge This Year: Reflections from A Christmas Carol

by Jeremy Anderberg on December 22, 2013 · 24 comments

in A Man's Life

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The name of Ebenezer Scrooge has become synonymous with miserliness, greed, grumpiness…all those things you don’t want to be. It’s really too bad, and Scrooge gets an unfair treatment in my opinion, because at the end of A Christmas Carol, he’s changed his ways and become a whole new man. The story should be remembered more for that — for the hope that a man can mend his ways and change his spirit — than for the coldness old Scrooge displays at the outset.

Author Charles Dickens wrote in a preface to the short novel that his intent in writing was “to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts.” After going through the text for the AoM Book Club, the following questions sort of naturally arose as I was thinking about it. Hopefully we can use these as a reflection for the Christmas season to be able to awaken some of those loving thoughts that Dickens was eager to find.

Do you carry a “low temperature” about you?

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In the first pages of this classic tale, Dickens describes the character of Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge. He was tight-fisted, secretive, solitary…and a bunch of other adjectives that are generally unpleasant. But the description that most stood out to me was that “he carried his own low temperature always about with him.” Yes, it was cold outside in London around Christmastime, but Scrooge carried a permanent coldness within him, no matter the time of year. He did not possess the trait of warmth — didn’t empathize, or console, or listen.

Can you relate? Do you have a bit of a cold demeanor? When I asked this question of the book club, every man responded that they did in fact have times of carrying a low temperature. Some more than others, but surely every man can relate from time to time. There’s no avoiding periods of coldness in our lives, it’s just a matter of recognizing, diagnosing, and correcting it. So maybe the better question, besides just asking if you have a low temperature, is why? And how can we move forward? The prognosis is in fact more important than the simple diagnosis. Is your coldness due to circumstances? Is it due to hurt feelings? Maybe you can’t really describe it, in which case you may need ritual in your life or to find one of the “switches” of manliness that you’re missing. Once you’re aware of your condition, you can change and move forward. Which is exactly what Mr. Scrooge did, but we’ll get more into that in just a bit.

What have you lost in the pursuit of Gain?

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Many people see the tale of Scrooge and the three ghosts as a lesson about money and greed. While that’s certainly part of it, I’m not sure that’s the main takeaway that Dickens intended. In the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, we observe a conversation between Scrooge and his then girlfriend. She comes to tell him that he’s changed — he now measures everything by Gain. “You fear the world too much. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you.”

The capitalization of the word tells us that perhaps it means more than just monetary gain. What we see in Scrooge’s interactions with people at the beginning and in the visit from this ghost is that he weighs all his actions and interactions by what he’ll get out of it. And if he doesn’t benefit directly, he becomes a miser. It’s said in the text that on the day of his former business partner’s funeral (something that surely wouldn’t have benefit for Scrooge), he remained a good businessman and did it on the cheap. While outwardly about money, it’s really about the fact that he had no room in his day for anything other than his own interests.

Our own interests extend beyond padding our wallets to include status, ego, and pride. We may want to rise to the top of the class and land a prestigious job, sculpt the perfect physique, be seen as the most righteous dude at church, or live a more extraordinary life than our friends by spending our time traveling the globe. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such pursuits; the danger lies in pursuing them with a single-mindedness that snuffs out our “noble aspirations.” Your dream of being a teacher withers as you miserably slog through law school; your lack of humility at church prevents real spiritual growth; your girlfriend feels neglected because you spend so much time at the gym; your friends are alienated by your need to make them feel jealous by constantly posting pics of your latest trip on Facebook. It feels so good to Gain, to move up any kind of ladder — even those we don’t recognize as such — that we become blind to the fact that we are more motivated by status and the desire to feel superior to others than we are by genuine interest in the pursuit. In fact, despite how much focus and time we lend to such pursuits, we may not even be enjoying them — they become, or have always been, a matter of checking off boxes of things we think we “should” do and should make us happy. Ultimately, our desire for status becomes the single prism through which we measure everything, leaving no time for friends, family, and service and leading to a life that is unbalanced, empty, and ultimately unsatisfying.

Periodically we all need to check in with ourselves to evaluate what we have lost in seeking after Gain. Regularly ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” and, “Would a more balanced life actually make me happier?”

What right have you to be dismal?

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Perhaps my favorite scene in the book is a short interaction between Scrooge and his nephew Fred.

[Scrooge] What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.

[Nephew] What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.

Scrooge thinks that merriness is based on circumstances. His nephew is poor, so why on earth should he be happy? But then Fred points out the fallacy of the question (and assumption) by pointing out that if the sentiment were true, then Scrooge should be the happiest man of all. So, does Scrooge relent and admit that circumstances don’t make one’s merriment? Not really, as he follows up by saying, “What else can I be when I live in such a world of fools as this?”

Don’t we all feel this way sometimes? It’s hard to watch the news (or heck, even the trolls on twitter and in the AoM comments) and not just throw our hands in the air and be miserable about the state of the world. What’s funny about this is that Dickens clearly observed this same attitude almost exactly 170 years ago. It’s not just now that our “world has gone to crap” — it’s always been this way. If you think life would’ve been better 100 years ago without the trolls of the internet, you’re wrong. There were still trolls, they were just yelling at you from street corner soapboxes instead of internet comment sections.

There will always be reasons to have a dismal attitude or outlook. If you’re waiting for life to be perfect before you cheer up, you’re bound to go through life as a Scrooge. While we often let our circumstances be the source of our mood, we don’t have to. Joy can be found in any situation, as is beautifully illustrated in this passage about the Cratchit family:

“They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time.”

Do you have laughter in your life?

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“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorry, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.”

In the last few months, I’ve come to observe that the relationships and people I enjoy the most are those with whom I laugh the most. There is an ineffable quality about the power of laughter on one’s spirit, and yet there’s also much research into the psychology of it. Laughter has literally been shown to be one of the best medicines. Its physical, emotional, and social benefits are too numerous to list in this post in their entirety, but laughter really can cure stress and physical pain, smooth conflict between people, and help relax both mind and body.

Feeling tense? Pull up your favorite YouTube video or watch an episode of Seinfeld. Are you having trouble connecting with your wife or girlfriend? Go see a comedy at the theater and you’ll almost certainly feel better. Lying in bed sick? Listen to some Louis CK on your phone — laughter has been shown to boost your immune system. Most of all, when things in your life go awry, have a sense of humor about it and surround yourself with people who can help you laugh it off.

Not only does laughing do a body and soul good, if you’ve got that “low temperature” that we talked about above, it’s a foolproof method for turning up your emotional thermostat.

Do you believe you can change?

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In the film and theatrical versions of A Christmas Carol, you can get the sense that the ghosts are doing all the work in changing Scrooge’s grim attitude. In the book, however, you can see the full range of his thoughts and how they’re changing as he encounters the three spirits. What was interesting to me was that almost from the beginning, once aware of his low temperature, Scrooge had the mindset and willingness to change. He didn’t fight it. He said multiple times that he would heed the lessons of the ghosts and try to soak up every word of advice.

We can’t be forced to change our ways. We have to buy into it ourselves. Sure, there’s often a catalyst (although it probably won’t be ghosts), but ultimately we’re responsible for changing. We can be visited by 100 ghosts, but if we never take their lessons to heart, our Scrooginess won’t go away. Our pride tells us to never change, to hold onto our metaphorical guns as long as we can, even if proven wrong, just for the sake of maintaining our inflated vision of ourselves. At some point, you have to suck it up, admit that you’ve made some mistakes, and be open to change. Had Scrooge not been willing, the story wouldn’t have worked.

How can you harness the Christmas spirit of joy throughout the year?

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I leave you with this final question. At the end of the tale, Scrooge declares, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” Even when stress is highest and temperatures outside chilliest, there’s something about Christmastime that brings joy and generosity to otherwise mundane moments. Find ways to harness that attitude throughout the year, and you’ll be a better man for it.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nyleen December 22, 2013 at 10:05 pm

This is incredibly insightful, by far the best thing I’ve read on Christmas this season. Thank you for writing!

2 John Foxe December 22, 2013 at 10:16 pm

I agree that Scrooge is often treated unfairly. As I remember (1) his mother died giving birth to him, for which his father abandoned him; (2) his sister, whom he loved dearly, cared for him as if she were his mother, and died while giving birth; (3) his girlfriend dumped him because he made honest mistakes in trying to build a life for them. Who wouldn’t become bitter?

3 Rory O'More December 22, 2013 at 11:13 pm

What was the final question you promised to leave us with?

4 Forest December 22, 2013 at 11:29 pm

Quite right. Good work, carry on. Dicken’s like Shakespear was enlightened, and is enlightening.

5 Benson Wong December 23, 2013 at 1:28 am

It took me a long time to realize that happiness is a choice. Just as we choose to be sad and miserable, we also have the choice to be happy and grateful. We tend to think that happiness is a byproduct of a goal. It harkens back to the old saying, “If I have money, then I can do the things I want. Then I will be happy.” Instead, I like to reframe that to, “If I am happy, then I will do the things I want, and that will lead me to take action towards having money.”

For whatever reason, we evolved to dwell on our lack and misery rather than practice gratitude. I think it has to do with the human mind and body wanting to be in homeostasis with its environment. For much of our time earlier on this planet, we were constantly hungry, malnourished, and in constant lack. If we had spent our lives in so much misery, then anything that makes us happy will upset that balance, and we will do whatever it takes to return to equilibrium. It’s the same reason why people who won the lottery seem to start taking steps to ruin the good that entered their lives.

Practicing laughter and gratitude will improve a person’s overall mindset and attitude. I know because I was that person. In fact, sometimes when I am alone I will start laughing just to get the feel-good chemicals going through my body. Laugh yoga groups have been formed for the very reason of having people get together to laugh just for improving mental and physical health.

6 Marc December 23, 2013 at 2:08 am

I was glad to find this article because I just finished reading A Christmas Carol for the first time. It really is a great read. I agree with your points above, especially one about maintaining a positive spirit throughout the year. Although the book was written almost 200 years ago, its message is just as applicable today, maybe even more so given how distracted and self-absorbed we have become as a society with all our gadgets and whatnot. When Scrooge was faced with his own gravestone his response was absolute remorse at his wasted life. I wonder what most of us would regret if some ghost led us to our own grave for a look. I know I would regret not being a better person and would want a chance to go back and spend more time with family and friends. Better make the most of it here and now is what Dickens was saying.

7 The Efficacious Gentleman December 23, 2013 at 3:42 am

A great post on a great book. I love reading A Christmas Carol and the first time I too was taken aback by how differently Scrooge comes over in the text.

We all have a little Scrooginess from time to time!

It’s worth taking the time to contemplate the world around us in the lens of the 3 ghosts and see what sort of impact we have on the lives of others.

8 Titus Techera December 23, 2013 at 6:29 am

Scrooge is as indifferent to winter’s cold as to human warmth. Perhaps his most ignored virtue is his great endurance; it is the key to his self-control.
Scrooge’s nephew alone debates with him; Scrooge speaks of reasons to him who walks so fast in the frost that he warms up aglow. To him Scrooge suggests the poor have no right to happiness; he wonders, in answer, why then is the rich Scrooge unhappy… He alone argues that the good is not merely the useful. He insists Christmas must be kept. The laws will not be thwarted.
Scrooge reasons thus: Those whom mankind calls good or noble are really vampires! They are wastrels! They ignore how little good there is in this world; their happiness diminishes the good things, because it encourages them to share. But economics cannot be fooled by good wishes. Eventually, there is hell to pay. If the rich turn to charity, they become poor.
The nephew hears Scrooge connects his generosity, poverty, love & marriage, & promise as a politician. No straight line in that thought, but quite the portrait! Scrooge sees men with the clarity reserved to villains. The conspiracy arrayed against Scrooge is awesome indeed. His last recourse is politeness: But that belongs to the city. When he asks to be let to keep Christmas his way – English toleration, reminding us of the Civil War – the nephew retorts: But you do not keep it! Toleration is for Christians, but not atheists, so to speak.

9 Chinmay December 23, 2013 at 6:42 am

Great post.
Its true that,Happiness is only real when shared..

10 Danuis December 23, 2013 at 6:48 am

The last paragrapgh hits home – in an argument of character, or indeed most arguments, is that once the person is aware of something wrong, they are quite liable to change, and truthfully, almost so much as to say those who agree with you later on in the argument always did, and just needed a push, though that is, of course, generalization.

11 Culper December 23, 2013 at 7:25 am

‘Without their visits,’ said the Ghost, ‘you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One.’

‘Couldn’t I take them all at once, and have it over, Jacob?’ hinted Scrooge.
Reallly enjoyed this article. On a related question I’ve been reading A Christmas Carol at work. I’ve never noticed it but now I can’t figure out whether the ghosts come in 1 or 3 nights due to the quotes below.

Marley: ‘Expect the second [ghost] on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate.

Scrooge: ‘It’s Christmas Day!’ said Scrooge to himself. ‘I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night.

12 Joseph December 23, 2013 at 7:38 am

This a marvelous article with a marvelous message. Being a “rich” Scrooge myself; who talks more than he listens, and who boasts than he shares; I find this marvelous article and its message very timely. I also feel that the writer managed to convey clearly his ideas and the ideas of novel of Charles Dickens.

There are a couple of important questions spread out through the article, but the one that stands out for me is: “What reason have you to be merry?”

I answer this question by saying that I am satisfied with the circumstances of my present life, though I look for better. I am satisfied with the quality of my friends and I do look for better. I am satisfied with my house; and I do look for better. I am satisfied with my spiritual level and I do look for better. I am satisfied with my knowledge, and I do look for better. I am satisfied with my material life, and I look for better. But I am UNsatisfied with my emotional life, and I do of course look for better…

Looking for the better and wishing you all the better!!

Merry Christmas…

13 SirKrenz December 23, 2013 at 8:15 am

Indubitably.

14 Joey E December 23, 2013 at 8:26 am

Read the book for the first time ever this month. I didn’t join the book club, but the book club inspired me to do it.

Great review of this book here. Thanks for this!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

15 Jacob December 23, 2013 at 9:19 am

I went to see my two children in a Christmas play at Church last night. If you want to Up you inner spirits temperature, try the following:

Have children, as many as you can, it will liberate you from yourself. It is a Love that trancends self. You will become a Man and a better one when you strive for the sake of others.

Join a Church and have a Church Family. It is something bigger than yourself and gives you ritual and a feeling of belonging. Forget politics, try some experiential learning, THEN decide if it is as evil as the propogandists say it is.

Merry Christmas from the Blue Ridge Mountains!

16 Russell S December 23, 2013 at 9:26 am

Terrific essay. I wrote one a few years ago about A Christmas Carol, and what it says about business: http://capitolismblog.com/2010/11/29/business-lessons-from-a-christmas-carol-2/

17 Andrew Elsass December 23, 2013 at 10:11 am

Read the book for the first time this year as I was writing a contemporary ‘remix’ of the story that incorporated many of the lessons that I have learned so far in my twenties, and re-realized just how awesome Dickens was.

I think the thing that amazes me most, is that despite how much the world has changed the past few centuries, the human condition has stayed mostly the same. We all have the same wants, hopes, and insecurities now that we did 175+ years ago.

Great post.

18 JohnnyT December 23, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Wonderful insight, thanks. A few years ago, I had the honor of playing Fezziwig in our local theater’s adaptation with my teenage son who played young Scrooge. It was an experience as a father that I’ll always treasure. My favorite line which I still remember to this day…

“Ebenezer, I admire your hard work and dedication. But, I worry you leave too much to your head and nothing to your heart. Don’t let those things that touch your heart slip away, for they are far more precious than gold. Merry Christmas!”

19 Zee December 23, 2013 at 1:34 pm

Such a fantastic article, and a book that is now higher on my to-read list. Thank you.

20 Andrew December 23, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Great article, Jeremy, and very insightful with regards to how we so often look at the negative aspects of situations. The name Scrooge will always be associated with Bah Humbug as opposed to the transformed, happy man he became. I hope and pray that I can more often see the beauty and positive things in life. Thank you!

21 BrandonH December 23, 2013 at 3:31 pm

More motivated to read this book rather than just watch movie renditions of it. Good food for thought.

22 Joshua Jordan, KSC December 23, 2013 at 4:10 pm

I found this to be an excellent presentment of Dickens’ work. I skimmed it, but I plant to read it, in full, later.

23 Kathryn December 30, 2013 at 8:43 am

Thank you for this excellent article. I also wrote about A Christmas Carol this year and compared it to Dante’s Divine Comedy:

http://through-a-glass-brightly.blogspot.com/2013/12/kindred-spirits-juxtaposition-of-dante.html

I hope you and your readers enjoy it!

24 PJ January 27, 2014 at 5:18 am

Thank you for the wonderful article! I sometimes have a difficult time remembering that happiness is a choice, regardless of the situation I’m currently in. Your article also reminded me that change can occur at any age (I’m over 50) and that life is to be lived!
Once again Thank you.

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