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Dickens' Enduring Lessons

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With December's arrival, we turn our attention to Christmas - the most wonderful, wondrous, and unfortunately, overwrought holiday for most Christians around the world. Last year, I wrote a piece on how "presence trumps presents" - encouraging people to think less about rushing to a frenetic mall to shop for gifts and rather, to spend our time with loved ones, realizing that giving them our time might prove the most precious gift of all.

Our family does this each year by collectively engaging in a number of holiday traditions. One of the most cherished is attending an annual performance of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI, one of the most respected regional theatre groups in the country.

Of all the great English-language authors, Charles Dickens has always been my personal favorite. His turns of phrase, humorous anecdotes, and unforgettable characters are second to none. But so too are his passion for social justice and his ability to help us see that his most common, understated characters are the ones that engage in noble and selfless acts.

A Christmas Carol, written 170 years ago and extremely short compared to most of Dickens' works, offers more than its share of wisdom, as relevant today as it was in 1843. Three lessons stand out in particular. Two are from the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Past who "invites" Scrooge to relive Christmases of his days gone by.

The first lesson Dickens offers is to simply look back. If not often, at least occasionally, ask "What led me to where I am today?" In my teaching at Boston College, often the first assignment I require of my students is to write a 20-page autobiography. As it did for Scrooge, the students' long look back brings up so many memories, both good and not so good, of the people and events that have shaped their lives. The insights students gain from this exercise are invaluable. Many find answers to their most important life questions - some of which had been long and often pondered, others never before considered. Whatever the case, the past is filled with answers to many of our most vexing and important questions, if we only take the time to reflect on it.

The second lesson from Scrooge's journey back comes on the occasion of a Christmas party he attended as a youthful apprentice working for "old Fezziwig." Mr. Fezziwig, though a somewhat minor character in the novel, is nonetheless a very important one. He serves as the counterpoint to Scrooge who treats his own employee, Bob Cratchit, so callously. Fezziwig's joyous Christmas celebration for his employees and friends, by contrast, shows the impact of a good manager on the spirit and well-being of his people. When the Ghost of Christmas past questions Scrooge's admiration for Fezziwig's "trivial" acts of kindness, ("A small matter to make these silly folks so full of gratitude. He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?"), Scrooge defends Fezziwig ardently and eloquently:

"It isn't that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

Although temporarily forgotten, Fezziwig's generosity of spirit has left an indelible impression on Scrooge. Such seemingly small acts of kindness can make all of our journeys lighter. I aspire to be Fezziwig, in my work and personal life, but worry that I sometimes better resemble the main character in this beloved tale. In fact, on my shelf at work, I keep a small statue of Scrooge which I have had for over 30 years. It was given to me by an old friend many Christmases ago. I believe she felt it best captured my then Yuletide spirit. That small artifact represents to me the third of Dickens' lessons.

For many, Scrooge is remembered as Dickens initially described him - "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint from which no steel had ever struck a generous fire." But A Christmas Carol, after all, is more than anything a story of transformation and redemption. Thanks to the insights he gains from the past (and the present and future), Scrooge reinvents himself to such an extent that he himself is sure that many will look upon his changed state with great skepticism. As Dickens described:

"Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these may be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him."

Reflection, small acts of kindness, and ultimately, transformation are just three of the lessons offered in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. On my own reflection, I'm convinced it was that transformed character of Scrooge that my old friend was thinking of when she gave me that tiny statue of Scrooge so many Christmases ago.

It had to be, right?

Happy holidays and as Tiny Tim observed "God bless us, every one!"

Professor Brad Harrington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family