December 19, 2018 by School of Medicine Webmaster

Reflections on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

By John Schorling

This is the holiday season, a time when we often focus on giving and on helping others.  That this is not always as easy as it sounds was brought home to me as I was watching the movie The Man Who Invented Christmas recently. This is an imagined account of what might have inspired Charles Dickens to write A Christmas Carol in 1843.   It shows Charles struggling with finishing the book as he is unable to see how Scrooge could be able to reevaluate his own life and change in the course of a single night.   At the same time, Charles is dealing with his own issues, primarily his father’s, John Dickens, continued reliance on Charles for financial support.  John was sent to debtor’s prison when Charles was young, and Charles became a laborer in a factory by the time he was 12.  In the movie, it is only when Charles revisits the pain of his childhood that he is able to let go of his anger and hostility and forgive his father and then finish writing the book, just as Scrooge has to acknowledge his own past and the impact it has had on his actions before he can move on and become a more caring and compassionate man.

Both the movie and the book are optimistic views of our ability to change and become more kind and compassionate by letting go of our views of the world that may be limiting us.  Although this process usually takes more than a single night, it still is possible to choose how we see our circumstances and, as a result, how we choose to act.  When we feel we have been wronged, our default reaction is often to hold on to anger and blame, believing that we are justified in feeling this way.  Yet often we are the person who suffers the most as we perpetuate these negative emotions, and may then act in ways that continue to harm ourselves and others.  When we find ourselves in these situations, it can be very difficult to change as the patterns have often been laid down over years.  From a neuroscience perspective, the pathways in our brains that perpetuate these beliefs and feelings can become like superhighways as they are reinforced by years of believing we are right and justified in our ways of thinking and behaving.  Once our perspective shifts and we gain insight into this conditioning, as both Charles in the movie and Scrooge in the book do, we can then work on establishing new, alternative, neural pathways that support a revised view of our circumstances.

Recognizing that how we feel and have learned to react don’t define us but have arisen from our need to adapt to our circumstances can be helpful in then letting them go when they no longer serve us. This happens for Scrooge when he recognizes the impact of his single minded focus on money and that, by trying to protect himself from the pain of ever being poor again, he has caused even greater pain for himself and others.  With this understanding, he chooses to respond not by continuing to be selfish and hoard money, but by being generous and giving to others, and he learns this can give him more joy than money ever did: “His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him.” His story was an inspiration to many when it was published 175 years ago, and the movie reminded me that it remains equally relevant today.

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