It’s been an embarrassing time to be human. Amid the latest waves of massacres, rapes, riots, and other shameful acts, I’ve found myself nourishing my inner curmudgeon and misanthrope with a bunch of books that I’m not going to tell you about.
I wore myself out and then found myself frantically looking for something cheerful.
Then I watched A Muppet Christmas Carol with my son recently, and there it was, echoing across the ages, nay, across time itself! My favorite opening line in all of literature:
Marley was dead: to begin with.
Morbid? Maybe, if taken out of context. But after I put my boy in bed, I got out my copy of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and read it through in one sitting. The story is so familiar that it hardly bears reviewing. But if somehow you missed it, here’s the plot:
The Christmas-hating, employee-abusing miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future. They show him how his actions and heartlessness have affected others, and the dreadful fate which awaits him if he doesn’t mend his ways.
And so, of course, he awakes on Christmas morning with love in his heart and goes about buying big fat turkeys and giving his employee a raise.
Lesser versions of me, versions that I’m not fond of, have at times found this tale to be saccharine to the point of inducing seizures. As my opinions of the world have darkened—is it not a heinous tragedy that the choice often seems to be between being happy and being informed?—I’ve felt like Scrooge more often than I’ve felt like Bob Cratchit. And I’ve never had an attitude half as charitable as Tiny Tim.
Nearly everything I see lately has made me want to yell “Bah! Humbug!”
And yet, when I closed A Christmas Carol this time, I felt more peace than I had in weeks. This is one of the many powers of books. The best books can make us want to be better people. A Christmas Carol made me want to be a better person this time around. I wasn’t rooting for Scrooge. I wasn’t rolling my eyes. I wasn’t feeling cynical. I just wanted to weep for humanity. I’d spent the better part of December seeing nothing but the gloomy silhouette of The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
But now, I am recommitting to a kind and gentle life, a life of quiet service and dignity. Maybe it won’t last. But maybe it will. All because a man named Charles Dickens wrote a book one hundred and seventy one years ago. A book that brought me to tears on a dark night in my thirty seventh year.
You can benefit from A Christmas Carol without the aid of faith, without “God bless us every one.” I did, for the first time in my life. But I don’t think any but the Scroogiest can finish this book without feeling a little better than when they started it.
We need sweeping changes in the world, but they will be accomplished through innumerable small steps. Each of us committing to treat others more kindly is a good place to start.
I needed this book so badly this month. If you’ve felt down recently, please consider reading A Christmas Carol and smiling at a stranger while you’re out walking.
I’ll be doing the same.