It’s time to look at Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in a new light. Scrooge, as most of us know, is a miserable, isolated man, “self-contained and solitary as an oyster.” On Christmas Eve, he finds himself alone in a cold and gloomy house, dismissing the need others seem to have for warmth and human company as “humbug.” He falls asleep, thinking only of the work he has to do. Enter the ghost of Scrooge’s business partner Marley, wrapped in chains made of cashboxes, ledgers, the objects of his attention in life.
“You are fettered,” says Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replies the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard.”
He warns Scrooge that he is forging his own chain and that his will be longer. In Buddhism, the fetters are mental bonds, habits of thought that limit us. We practice meditation, on and off the cushion, to cultivate a wiser, more spacious awareness. 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.”
Our real business here on earth is becoming more fully human, more aware and responsive. Marley moans and shakes his chains. But maybe it isn’t the moaning and chain rattling that frightens Scrooge so much as the glimpse Marley offers of his being bound and limited. We all have these frightening moments. We catch ourselves in the act of being caught up in this or that, or after the fact. Where did the time go? Why did I waste so much time in this narrative or that? In retrospect, we see ourselves trapped in delusion or aversion or craving something that turned out to be so not worth it.
Three more spirits come to Scrooge. These spirits bring moments of a deeper awareness of past, present, and future. Suddenly, Scrooge sees and feels what he usually misses, the poignancy and beauty of life, and he also feels how it is to be “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous.”
We long to see clearly and to be seen. Yet Marley’s ghost and the other spirits convey how startling this can be. It is said that the Buddha could see peoples’ past, present, and future–could see the source and the end of their suffering. Sometimes, when conditions are just right, we can see this way too. Such a gaze liberates. But it also burns because it awakens in us a feeling of the value of life. We see that life passes so swiftly, and that we miss quite a lot of it.
“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.
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.” They missed their chance to be present, really and truly alive, while they were here.
Bless us, everyone!