Ebenezer Scrooge: a story of inner transformation

In Changing life, Charles Dickins, Ebenezer Scrooge on December 25, 2011 at 3:02 am

The Christmas classic by Dickins is a life-affirming story of the ability of each person to grow and transform their own life and the world around them, from the inside out, not the outside inRead it. It is actually a very short book, won’t take long and it packs a hefty punch. I think the story of Scrooge is inspiring about the fact that it is possible to transform one’s life and the lives of others. Second, whilst Dickens wrote the book to also highlight appalling conditions in Victorian times, it continues to be relevant to the point in history we are now in, with gross social and economic injustices still scarring our world. But importantly, we can all play some kind of part – small or big – to try and make this better, or at least not make it worse.

At the heart of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a person’s awakening – intense and deeply personal – that unmistakably changes his life and irrevocably alters the lives of others for the better.  By the end of the tale, Ebenezer evolves from a life of enjoying cruelty to offering generosity; from experiencing inner pain to reveling in healing and joy, and a transformation from appalling selfishness to selflessness.

Ebenezer’s example demonstrates something about the ‘revolutionary’ nature of ‘Love’ and its quiet, but fierce power to bring out what is really best and most true about us. His story is a reminder that the way to a better sense of self that lasts a lifetime starts from inside, from attitude, from the mind, from awareness of what is going on around you and how you choose to react to circumstances, since life and its happy times and not so happy times will always happen.

Picture it. Ebenezer Scrooge, a man who at the start of the book is so hard of heart you wonder if nature had forgotten to give him one! He is deaf to compassion. He lives as a miser with his money, attention and emotions. Charles Dickens writes vividly,

“…he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire…External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he…Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts…But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.”

You know how it is in today’s London. Walking down the street you get accosted by the modern-day equivalents of Victorian charity workers who stop you with a joke and ask you to sign up to save the dolphin, or something even more serious.  Most of look down, or stare ahead manically, determined not to fall into the trap of conversation, god forbid. At the most we might say “Sorry…no time…in a rush…signed up with you guys before” (big fat lie)” and go on our way. But, not Ebenezer. When asked by some well meaning charity workers looking for donation to help the poor, he rubs it in viciously. He asks, “Are there no workhouses…is the Poor Law still in full vigour?”

No compassion reigns in his heart. In fact, he takes delight in being caustic and cruel.

His behaviour to his clerk, Bob Cratchit is no good either. Cratchit is forced to endure Ebenezer’s daily mood swings and jibes. It makes him feel powerful to make his poor clerk insecure about his job security, and he pays him poorly.

The phrase “blood is thicker than water” has no meaning to Ebenezer as even his jovial and cheerful nephew who comes with Xmas greetings and who loves his uncle, is dismissed from Ebenezer’s office with a little more than grunt. Even his business partner, Jacob Marley, who Ebenezer worked with and died seven years earlier (and who comes to haunt him later) occupies no thought or sentiment in his mind.

For Ebenezer everything and everyone comes second, unless it serves his own purpose. On the surface, this attitude makes him not only disagreeable, but appears to make him satisfied with his lot. In fact, as the sorry unfolds we discover what happened to Ebenezer in the past that has contributed to the way he really is inside  – a fearful, bitter and lonely miser.

Thankfully, the story ends happily! So, where does Ebenezer go wrong and where does he go right to bring about a marvelous change?

What can we glean from Dickens’s great Christmas story to make our own lives don’t become ‘Scrooged’. There is quite a lot in the book, but from how I interpret it I want to concentrate on three things:

Number 1: The past will terrorise your present and future, if you let it

When the first spirit (‘The Ghost of Xmas Past’) takes Ebenezer back to his childhood, we find out that it really wasn’t the happiest time. Ebenezer’s father comes across as a stern and hard man with emotional problems of his own. Moody, distant and unfeeling, he takes this out on his children, which is never right or fair. When all the other children have gone home to their families for holidays, we come upon the image of Ebenezer alone, in a horrible classroom. Dickens makes a point of saying ‘alone, again.’ Contrary to the hard, cold and confident exterior the adult Ebenezer portrays, we see him nervous, sad and unsure as a child. The one joy of his early life, his beloved sister comes by to tell him, at last, he will be allowed to come home and that their father is a changed man, much to Ebenezer’s delight. A bit further on, we find out that his beloved and devoted sister dies, leaving one child (his nephew).

The spirit then takes Ebenezer to a scene from his life where he is in conversation with his lover, who having had enough of his focus on ambition and money to the exclusion of their relationship, dumps Ebenezer and let’s him go. She accuses of him being such a changed man that if he had to choose a girlfriend again, he would not choose her and would only choose a girl from which he could gain something for himself. In modern parlance, she’s calling him a gold digger.

Like the first spirit (represented by a glowing candle) who Ebenezer tries to put out, these past experiences have blocked out the warmth, heart and light inside Ebenezer.

We see Ebenezer become emotional, far different from the image he shows the world. We see in the same visit by the first spirit that deep down, Ebenezer has not always been as spiteful and miserable a man as he is now. We see him at a party with colleagues, in his younger days, when he was full of laughter and capable of a jig and a dance! His life becomes ‘Scrooged’ because of the experiences from his past. Most of these are not his fault, but just a mix of unfair circumstances, including his father, sister and schooling.  But, all of this affects his self worth and self-confidence.

We can tell by his reaction when the Ghost of Xmas Past presents these images to him that he is uncomfortable and complains to the spirit that it is ‘torturing’ him, because he hasn’t let the past go. He hasn’t forgiven it and instead of dealing with the past, accepting and forgiving it, Ebenezer tries to hide it. Except as someone once said, in some movie I once saw (but can’t remember) “…you might be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with you.”

Ebenezer just deals with it in the same way that a lot of us might – either by shutting bad experiences out, because they are painful, or taking these out on others, because we don’t like to look at what ails us.

But, thankfully, where Ebenezer finally goes right, is that he begins to understand that if he wants to grow and heal, he needs to go through the ‘fire’ and uncertainty and confront the pain and past. Otherwise, it will continue to terrorise his mind in the present and future and will stay in limbo. He allows all three spirits to lead him on and show him what he needs to see – in his own life, and the consequences that his actions (or inaction) is having on others around him.  Ebenezer needs to remember and let go of unhappy experiences, otherwise he will keep denying them and be unable to forgive and forget. So much so that by the end of the book he proclaims to the scariest of the three spirits (‘The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come’), out of genuine self-understanding (not fear) that he will keep alive the spirit Christmas in his own heart and the lessons of Christmas past, present and future all the year round. With the past gone, Ebenezer is free to enjoy the good things around him and embrace a happier future.

Number Two: A whole life involves focusing on other people, as well as yourself.

Emotionally, Ebenezer is completely unbalanced. This clearly manifests in other areas of his life and attitude.

He measures out his time and attention in the same way that he keeps account of his money – strictly, carefully, and without a hint of selflessness.

He is judgmental and we witness the terse and cruel remarks he makes to the charity collectors who come by for donations. He is rude and grumpy to the carol singers.

He grudgingly gives his clerk the day off work for Xmas, but in the same breath demands he come into the office earlier, on Boxing Day. In what would surely be a breach of modern day health and safety laws, he sadistically only allows one paltry piece of coal to be used to keep the office warm to save money, regardless of uncomfortable this makes his employee.

He plays games with others and revels in making them feel insecure and uncomfortable, because he has experienced that in the past and wants others to feel that which has been inflicted on him. He lives by the view that everyone must help themselves only, no matter what misfortune has come their way, or do not know how too or cannot even afford to.

It is only when Ebenezer is forced to look at his own life, and attitude by the three spirits that he begins to view things through a different perspective and the benefit of hindsight.

He feels remorse at the way he treats his clerk when he is taken back in time to his younger days and to how his own boss, Mr Fezziwig, treated him (much better than how Ebenezer treats Bob Cratchitt!). A crack in the wall around his heart.

His hard heart opens a little more when he realises how he let ambition and career take over his mind and time to the point that the woman he loved had enough. Perceptively and honestly she says to him,

“You fear the world too much…all your others 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.” 

Brought by spirit number 2 (‘The Ghost of Christmas Present’) to the happy house of his poor clerk, he sees for the first time, how ill Bob Cratchitt’s son is. Ebenezer shows another moment of genuine concern and an ability to forget about himself for once. As Dickens writes, “Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me of Tiny Tim, will he live?” Again, his heart has opened a bit more at that point.  When the spirit tells him that Tiny Tim will die unless things change, he is overcome by remorse.

When the same spirit transports Ebenezer to the mines to see ‘how the other half lives’ he shows him ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Want’ symbolically represented by two destitute and poor children. Ebenezer asks with passionate concern, “Have they no refuge or resource?” The spirit repeats his own words back at him “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

Ebenezer begins to understand that his own action (and inaction) has consequences on people other than himself, that a kind word goes a long way and that generosity of spirit and money can go even further, providing help and joy to both giver and receiver.

In the final chapter, after he wakes up alive, he wastes no time in giving of himself to others, even if this drastic change in character inspires laughter and ridicule from some others (“and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him.”)

Ebenezer now knows what is truly important in life and that money, ambition and fame is not the be all and end all. Maybe even his example will inspire others to do the same. His life no longer depends on wearing a mask or of pretending to be someone different, portraying an image (in his case a old scary miser). He has found his true self, which is grounded in love, fraternity and selflessness.

He raises his clerk’s salary by (several percentage points over and above the annual rate of inflation!). He gives lots of money to the charity workers he had ridiculed the day before. And he supports Bob Cratchit’s son, and even becomes a second father to him.

Whereas before he had been a great testament to a life half and ‘wrong’ lived, he now becomes a shining example for the power of genuine selflessness and a demonstration that, metaphorically speaking “Love really can move mountains. ”

Number Three: Remorse and forgiveness is important, but lasting change is only cemented by action.

All three visits by the spirits see Ebenezer gradually becoming more and more aware that the way he has been treating himself and other people has been awful.

The spirits have no need to get into a philosophical debate about the nature of God and man, saving man from his sins, or right and wrong. They simply show him how he has behaved and the logical consequences of his actions and his words. Ebenezer’s own spirit stirs deep inside. Something good inside, something better is awakened.

At the deepest level of his self, Ebenezer moves from a life of isolation and individualism, to inner unity and joining his life with the world and people around him. This in itself becomes healing and fulfilling not only for others but also for himself. No longer separate and lonely inside, but unified and happy by sharing, giving and receiving.

However, in real life, for many people the story can often end with the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

An awareness, that perhaps, life could be more fulfilling or that positive change is not a dream; that it is possible for life take a better direction. But nothing real and substantial actually changes because fear and procrastination take over. Or even because guilt and remorse swamp one’s motivation to take action, to put things right or makes changes that are needed. Dickens’s story could have had an alternative, and in my view a ‘tragic’ ending. Ebenezer could have carried on as he had been doing. He could have stayed ‘Scrooged.’ Perhaps a little less cruel, maybe exerting a lot of effort not to be so nasty or closed, but still not really opening himself up to the radical change, in fact revolution of character he commits himself to by the end of the book.

Ebenezer doesn’t let the deep guilt or previous anger at the past, others or himself overwhelm him.

On waking, on Christmas morning, the bells pealing across London city, he jumps out of bed, deliriously happy and joyous. He sets his mind, body and spirit to the best work, making others happy, not checking his accounts. In doing so, he’ll be happy himself.  Like a ‘second birth’, he has another chance, but not from a deity, partial to changing His mind if one does not follow the particular rules of a bunch of clergy. A second ‘birth’ born by the fact of what, at a deep level, is most natural about Ebenezer, and all of us – ‘Love.’

By taking action, as soon as possible, he sets in motion dynamic energy that begins to really get things on a better path, before any old habits set back in again. He becomes fully aware that (as the cliché says) ‘life is short,’ and that each of us must try to choose a future, your own – not let it happen to you. The power in ‘A Christmas Carol’ is in the power of the decision that Ebenezer makes, and the choices he commits himself to so that change becomes solid and real.

By the time Ebenezer wakes up, he has a half-remembered sense of what ‘Love’ is, its ways and means, and what he is really like, but had forgotten because shit happened.

He no longer wants to hold on to what he had become.

  1. […] shifts how you see life, others and yourself. A previous post I wrote on the fictional character, Scrooge, is a great example of this in […]

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