by Don Laird, NCC, LPC
Scrooge. It’s a name synonymous with a cold and heartless man concerned more with greed and gain than mercy; a cultural archetype who wants nothing further to do with humanity and has no use for words like compassion or care. Yet, on closer examination, Scrooge’s story reveals some remarkable insights into the malaise of our modern times. The narrative is universal and enduring, but Charles Dickens’ tale is more than a harsh commentary on the mores of his time.
On its surface, Dickens’ Victorian yarn can be overlooked as just another holiday story. The tradition of spinning stories of spectral visitors was quite common for the time. However, there is much more at stake now for our cultural and individual wellbeing in this seasonal tale. Therefore, I assert that Dickens’ seminal 1843 work A Christmas Carol remains one of the finest illustrations of existential psychotherapy ever written (albeit in fictional form).
The tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge opens a time and space for those who want to reflect on life in all its suffering and beauty. This is also a starting principle for good therapy. Reflecting on existence and the human condition is not about instant transformation for the client or utilizing a positive psychology to soothe the existential fears of both client and therapist. It is a crisis that is illuminated by one of the key tenets of psychotherapy – fear of death.
It is here that I want to briefly highlight the other side of Scrooge. No one arrives at a fixed point in their development without a back story, and Scrooge’s history is one filled with disappointment, suffering, and neglect. He is an ignored and isolated child, abandoned even at Christmas by his family and friends. Scrooge knows emotional 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 for needing emotional attachment and engagement – qualities easily dismissed by a young man whose growing trust in currency will engulf his life for years to come.
Stave I of A Christmas Carol exemplifies one of the central canons of existential depression and anxiety, life has always been this way and it will always be this way. There is a critical loss of agency here, and caustic determinism quickly fills the void. When the third spirit beckons Scrooge to look down on his own tombstone, Scrooge, in a moment of sheer existential terror, experiences a cognitive opening and a spiritual awakening. His life can be written differently and what seems to be etched in marble and stone isn’t.
This cautionary lesson is compelling; an opportunity for Scrooge to experience what life might look like following his death. With his shroud-covered corpse left abandoned on a table, he watches in horror as
strangers and former servants quibble over his meager belongings and mock his demise with no regard or mercy. In death as it was in life, he is no longer an agent of change. He is a spectator of the cruel and vicious world he helped create.
However, all Three Spirits present Scrooge with a gift – he was and is an agent of change. It is this encounter with one’s mortality that can lead to a deeper and greater life. In short, to know death is to know life. Scrooge embraces the consequences of this adage so that he may live out his final months and years involved in the vibrancy of close relationships and mercy.
Death anxiety is real; despite those in psychology who often relegate it to the closet of “let’s not go there unless we have to” (even by those seasoned practitioners who should know better). Beware the therapist
who professes that the exploration of death anxiety is not particularly helpful. Yes, therapists can spend far too much time focusing on one area while neglecting another. It happens. Not every therapist is experienced enough to create a new therapy for each of their clients. However, that shouldn’t allow for a surging wave of positive psychology and cognitive therapy to sweep us away from Otto Rank’s maxim, “Some refuse the loan of life to avoid the debt of death.” This is especially relevant in a postpandemic world.
Exploration of death and dying serves as a profound catalyst toward some remarkable life changes. As Dickens illustrates, it is the confluence of both past, present, and future, an investigation of life by way of a spiritual awareness and cognitive acknowledgement of our finite time here on Earth. In this way, we are all a reflection of Dickens’ vision.
A Christmas Carol calls us to consider 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 were not unusual for the era. 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.