An Existential Yuletide Greeting
by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they the shadows of things that May be, only?”
Scrooge. A word that can immediately conjure images of a bitter and heartless man concerned more with greed than humanity; a cultural archetype of someone wanting nothing further to do with his species and one who has no use for words like “compassion” or “care.” Yet, on closer examination, Scrooge’s story reveals some remarkable insights for our modern times. There are facets to his narrative that are ostensibly universal. Yes, a harsh commentary on the mores of his time, but Scrooge is more relevant today than ever.
On its surface, Dickens’ Victorian yarn can be simply read as “Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.” However, there is much at stake for our cultural and individual well being in this seasonal tale. In fact, I assert to you that Charles Dickens’ seminal 1843 work A Christmas Carol remains one of the finest examples of existential psychotherapy ever written (albeit in fictional form). The tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge opens a time and space for self-reflection for those who want to examine life in a meaningful and in-depth fashion. This is not about instant transformation for the client, positive psychology to sooth the therapist’s fears, or worse, wishful thinking from both parties. It is an existential crisis that is illuminated by one of the key tenets of psychotherapy – fear of death.
We all know the story, so it is here that I wish to briefly highlight the other side of Scrooge. No one arrives at a certain point in their development without a back story, and Scrooge’s history is one filled with disappointment and neglect. He is an ignored and isolated child, abandoned even at Christmas by his family and friends. Scrooge knows pain all too well at an early age. The world around him and its inhabitants are not to be trusted. People, above all, should be shunned. They are to be feared as they need and require emotional attachment and engagement. These qualities are easily dismissed by a young man whose growing trust in currency and greed will engulf his life for years.
In the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge exemplifies one of the central canons of existential depression and anxiety, that one has always been this way, and one always will be. There is a loss of agency and caustic determinism quickly fills in this void. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come points at the tombstone, Scrooge understands for the first time that life can be written differently: what seems to be etched in stone isn’t. The specter’s message is powerful; an opportunity for Scrooge to see what life on earth would be like after his death. Scrooge observes his own forgotten corpse as his peers minimize his demise. He watches in horror as strangers quickly sell his belongings, while mocking his death with no regard or mercy. In death, he can no longer be an agent of change. He is a spectator to a cruel and vicious world he created. Yet all Three Spirits show him that he was and is agent of change as long as he is alive. It is through an encounter with one’s mortality that a fuller life may occur – to know death is to know life. Scrooge accepts the significance of death, so that he may live his final months and years embraced in the richness of his relationships with others.
Death anxiety is real; despite those in modern psychology who often relegate the subject of death to the closet of “let’s not go there unless we have to” (even by some seasoned practitioners who should know better). In short, beware the therapist who professes that the exploration of death anxiety is not particularly helpful in therapy. Yes, therapists can spend far too much time focusing on one area while neglecting another. It happens. Not every therapist is well-rounded enough to create a new therapy for each of her or his clients. However, that shouldn’t allow for a wave of “positivity” to sweep us away from Otto Rank’s maxim, “Some refuse the loan of life to avoid the debt of death.” Exploration of death and dying serves as a profound catalyst toward some remarkable life changes. It is the confluence of both past, present and future; an investigation of life by way of an awareness and acknowledgement of our finite time here on Earth. In this way, we are all a reflection of Dicken’s vision.
Thus, A Christmas Carol calls us to embrace some definitive questions, “How would the world be different if I were to die today?” and “Do I ever have a true sense of how many lives I’ve touched?” Scrooge’s story may, in fact, provide the answers. Our relationships with others are so intrinsic that our absence creates an entirely different existence – a ghostly existential vacuum, if you will.
In the Victorian era, people saw ghosts and had premonitions. It was a system of supernatural beliefs that was not uncommon. Freud came along and said that this was the result of repressed memories. The dead were reduced to misleading or damaged recollections that resulted in certain beliefs and behaviors. Ghosts haunted the mind, not the house. Yet, there is something within Scrooge’s narrative that calls to us, pushes us beyond cause and effect, beyond determinism, and reminds us that we can be responsible and compassionate with our life choices and that no person is indeed an island.
Be well, and remember to keep the spirit of this season in your heart today and throughout the year.
In good health,