Friday, December 22, 2023

The Practice of Benevolence {A Reflection on Dickens' A Christmas Carol} by Karen S. Wiesner

The Practice of Benevolence

{A Reflection on Dickens' A Christmas Carol}

by Karen S. Wiesner

One of my all-time favorite stories is and always will be Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843. I imagine it's a story nearly everyone everywhere has heard in one form or another. For my part, I try to read the novella and watch one of the countless film adaptations every year around Christmas. Dickens wrote, "I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it."

The messages in this story are timeless. I did an internet search asking what the major themes in this undeniable classic are, and almost none of the offerings that came up could focus on just one because there are so many good messages in this one little tale. Here's my attempt at coming up with a motif for the story:

The spirit of benevolence and goodwill toward our fellow human beings throughout the year is in the eternal need for compassion, kindness, and mercy to all, as well as the transformative power of change coming from within.

Benevolence is the disposition to do good, embodying a genuine desire to promote kindness, charity, and positive attitudes toward others along with an inclination to perform acts of goodwill or extend help to those in need. A benevolent person actively seeks opportunities to benefit others, often without expecting anything in return.

Our world and the people in it often aren't a very good reflection of that description, wouldn't you agree? Selfishness, putting one's desires first, despising one another because of our differences looks like the norm in this day and age--as, in truth, it was at the time Dickens wrote the story and probably has been all throughout time. Does this description of Scrooge (written 180 years ago!) from the narrator of the story sound like anyone you know? I can think of several (including myself) who fit some or all of the points:

"Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, 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; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster… 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..."

I thought it would be illuminating to explore the many good lessons taught, in quotes, by the characters in A Christmas Carol as they reflect on life. Draw what conclusions you will from each quote, but I think most of the truths are self-evident.

Jacob Marley's Reflections of Life:

“I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."

" space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused!"

"Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Fred 's (Scrooge's Nephew) Reflections of Life:

"...I am sure I have always thought of Christmas only time I know of...when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave..."

“…his offences carry their own punishment… I am sorry for him; I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims! Himself, always."

Bob Crachit's Reflections of Life:

Bob told them of the extraordinary kindness of Mr. Scrooge’s nephew… "…he is the pleasantest-spoken gentleman you ever heard… 'If I can be of service to you in any way,’ he said, giving me his card, ‘…Pray come to me.' "Now, it wasn’t for the sake of anything he might be able to do for us, so much as for his kind way..."

Ghost of Christmas Past's Reflections of Life:

"Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it…

 “What!” exclaimed the Ghost, “would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap, and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow!”

Ghost of Christmas Present's Reflections of Life:

“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

Ghost of Christmas Future's Reflections of Life (note: this ghost didn't actually speak out loud, but Scrooge inferred its intentions based on the things shown to him by it):

"Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion! But of the loved, revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand was open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man’s. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal! … No voice pronounced these words in Scrooge’s ears, and yet he heard them when he looked upon the bed. He thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard-dealing, griping cares? They have brought him to a rich end, truly! … He lay, in the dark empty house, with not a man, a woman, or a child, to say that he was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to him... “Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope! ... Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”

Ebenezer Scrooge's Reflections of Life:

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”

Narrator's Reflections of Life:

"He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew…"

We live in a world that's ever in need of the very things that are least evident in it. Hatred, intolerance, and violence over things that shouldn't but inevitably and inescapably do divide us against our fellow human beings have become our daily bread. Every day, each one of us commits offenses against others in some way, shape, or form. As I reflect on this sad commentary, I often consider how much good benevolence would have on us and our world throughout the year, if only we practiced it.

Instead of fighting over all the wrong we see others doing, what if we as a whole didn't specify wrongdoing (as in transgressions, flaws, weaknesses, vices, and regrets) into its unlimited categories, instead generalizing wrongs as "wrongs"? We're all carrying around a big bag of those wrongs. If we didn't look inside everyone's "bag of wrongs", wouldn't we have to conclude that we're all equal in the eyes of God as well as each other? Would we then conclude--since we're all carrying around a bag of wrongs, regardless of what's inside--that maybe we should have compassion on one another and accept that we individually are not the only one in need of grace, forgiveness, and unquantified mercy? At that point, could we minister, show kindness and empathy for each other in the name of goodwill toward all? Consider also that, if we realize it's not our place to punish others for their perceived wrongs, a tremendous weight is lifted from our shoulders, leaving us free to pursue peace instead.

We're all on the road to death, and every single road in life inescapably leads to that conclusion. If we're all on even ground, then no one is better or more righteous than the next one, right? In the same vein, no one is more sinful than another either. We're all the same. If we each deserve unilateral hatred and scorn, then, by the same token, don't we all deserve unbiased love and tenderness? Shouldn't we then practice benevolence as our common ground? In this way, respect and courtesy could and should be given to every single person on the planet regardless of who we are and what's inside our particular bag of wrongs.

For as long as breath remains in our lungs, life in our bodies, blood in our veins, it's not too late to live out the benevolence of A Christmas Carol to the world around us every single day. In this way, we each do our part in sowing the world with life immortal.

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Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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