I just read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (again).
Each December, as I browse the stacks of my local library, I see the same copy of the book placed strategically on the end of an aisle. Each aisle-end has three clear plastic shelves attached to it. In my opinion, these shelves come off looking extremely cheap, reminiscent of an inexpensive in/out box you might find at an office supply store.
Usually I can’t figure out how they’ve picked out the books to go on the shelves. Most don’t seem very good, they almost never include classics, and they rarely follow a theme. For the most part, it seems like someone on the library staff has walked up and down aisles snagging books at random. And then someone like me spends his valuable library-browsing-time considering the books. “Hmmm, someone put these here, they must be pretty good.” Except at Christmastime. At Christmastime they put out their one copy of A Christmas Carol, and I check it out and take it home. I’m the only person who ever reads it, year after year.
Have you read it? I know you’ve seen the movie. There must be a dozen versions. In my memory, I like the musical version: “Scrooge.” But to be honest I probably haven’t seen it since 1974, so maybe it sucks.
A Christmas Carol is a good story. A little obvious, but the time investment is minimal; there’s not much to it. It’s a long short story, or a short novella. Each year, I seem to take away something new. This year, I was struck by a rant spewed by the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge’s long dead business partner, Jacob Marley.
“Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business!”
This quote summarizes the book rather neatly, and it also identifies where we’re supposed to focus—not just at Christmas—but throughout the year as well. But in addition to that quote, I walked away with something more important… more important to me, anyway.
Spoiler Alert: Near the end of the book, Scrooge is shown the general reaction to his future death. Not only does no one care, but people are actually happy he’s dead. He’s a nasty stain, a stingy old money-lender who’s been sent off to hell. Now the world has become a little bit better with his absence. I finished the book last night, and then I went straight to bed. As I waited for sleep, I had an uneasy feeling settling into my chest. I began to identify with Scrooge. I started worrying that my death might be a little similar to his.
I don’t think people will rejoice when I pass into the next life, but will they care? Some will, my family of course. But in my small town, where everyone knows everyone else, will I be much more than a bit of gossip for a day or two? If I take a hard look at myself, I know I’m not a friendly person. I’m a nice person. Polite. I greet the people I know when I see them on the street, but I rarely spend any time talking with them.
Twice this week, I ran into this guy, Scott, who I know though some business deals at my old work. Plus, he was my realtor when I moved to town thirteen years ago. We seem to be on the same schedule getting coffee at the grocery store. Yes, on my way to work, I stop at a grocery store to buy a cup of coffee. It isn’t very good coffee, but neither is the coffee at the main coffee shop in town, and this is a buck and a half cheaper. Both times I saw Scott, we had in-depth conversations—once about my new job, and today we talked about swimming.
This morning, as I drove in to work, it occurred to me how unusual it is for me to have a conversation. I talk with almost no one. Even at work, a conversation of more than two sentences is uncommon. I have a long history of social anxiety. Conversations are awkward and uncomfortable. It’s hard for me to relate to others, so I give myself a bye, a pass. I expect almost nothing from myself in the socializing department. Maybe I’m just being lazy. Maybe with some effort…
Besides being an asshole, Scrooge is portrayed as a hermit. Like me, he interacts with no one, except when he’s at work. He dines alone at a tavern and comes home to a sparse and lonely house. He has no friends because he isn’t friendly. He isn’t nice either, but I know plenty of not-nice people who have friends.
Scrooge spent Christmas Eve with four ghosts who gave him a glimpse of his bleak past, present and future, and an opportunity to make amends. Through his story of redemption, I see a place for mine as well. For 2018, my business will be charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence and friendliness. This is my resolution. When I die, I want people to care.