The Message of Marley’s Ghost

The truth cannot be thought, a great teacher once told me (or I was in the room when she said this).  The real truth is not a secret formula or any other kind of privileged knowledge that can belong to a particular group or tradition.  It is a living thing that must be glimpsed and lived.  It must be understood in the ancient sense of standing under, letting it rain down on you.

The search for this truth has motivated Parabola since the beginning.  And in this spirit, I offer a contemporary, Buddhist and Mindfulness-inflected reflection on the meaning Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. The ghost of Scrooge’s business partner Marley visits him one night, wrapped in chains made of cashboxes, ledgers, and other tools of his life-long trade.

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost.“I made it link by link, and yard by yard.”

In Buddhism, the fetters are mental bonds, grasping habits of thought that radiate from a belief that we are an isolated little self that must work and strive and defend itself, a fearful, driven self that doubts there can be another way to relate to life. “In life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole,”Marley’s ghost tells Scrooge. By spirit he means his awareness, his potential to lift up his eyes and open his heart and live in a wise and compassionate and generous way. Naturally, Scrooge doesn’t understand. He reminds his old partner that he was “always a good man of business.”

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “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.”

If Marley was a contemporary of ours, he might have said this: “The happiness of all beings everywhere was my business; generosity, compassion, equanimity and loving kindness were, all, my business. My job and professional identity were but a drop of water in the vast ocean of my human possibility.”

How horrible it is to realize that you have missed the chance to live the life you might have lived. I once read that what the dying reporting regretting the most is that they weren’t present more often. Too late they realize that the seemingly small act of being present to life in the moment is actually huge and essential. “This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness,” writes Mary Oliver.

Marley moans and shakes his chains and tries to terrify Scrooge into seeing that he is not fully paying attention, that he is passing his whole life in his reptile and reward-seeking systems, fighting for survival, and consumed with personal comfort and gain. But Scrooge can’t take it in. He is as “self-contained and solitary as an oyster”– self-absorbed and shelled off from the world. He is stuck in the deep groove of instinctive reactions and making the chains that bind him ever stronger by being “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous.” He will need a bigger shaking up. He will need the teachings of the Three Spirits.

Yet before he leaves, Marley’s ghost leads Scrooge to an open window where he sees “the air full of phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went.” All of them are fettered, all of them suffer terribly. They realize that the way out of the chains that bind them is to open the heart and mind to life one moment at a time…but it’s too late.

The good news is that for us, as for dear old Scrooge, it is not too late.

3 thoughts on “The Message of Marley’s Ghost

  1. How lovely! And how like you to put a new spin on an old tale. Beautifully written. Makes me want to curl up by the fireplace with some Brandy and Dickens — and good will to one and all.

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