I had been seeing a psychoanalyst for about a year when, at the end of November, I announced to him that I was quitting for the holidays. I was sad about the subjects we were discussing and didn't want to dwell on them during the Christmas season. I promised to start up again in January.
He talked me out of it, to my complete lack of surprise. He said we were finally getting somewhere and advised me to sit with my feelings and let them do their work. I went home with a commitment to return at the end of the week.
That night, by pure coincidence, I picked up The Examined Life by British psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz. If you haven't heard of it, this is not a self-help book. The Examined Life is a critically acclaimed collection of essays about therapy patients and their struggles, more Chekov than Chopra. What struck me that night, though, was a brief aside by Dr. Grosz in which he says he includes Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol on his reading list when he teaches psychotherapy.
I've re-read A Christmas Carol every December for close to a decade but always enjoyed it as a lighthearted fable about the magic of the season. Dr. Grosz sees more than that. "Dickens teaches us something essential about how people change," he writes. "Scrooge doesn't change because he's frightened – he changes because he's haunted. Haunting ... makes us alive to some fact of the world, some piece of information, that we're trying to avoid."
This instantly struck me as the truth. But after re-reading A Christmas Carol again, I can't help feeling Dr. Grosz only scratches the surface of how Dickens illustrates our relationship with loss at the time of year many people feel it most keenly.
'He could not hide the light'
I now see, for instance, that Dickens uses the Ghost of Christmas Past to cleverly acknowledge our tendency to avoid the past – and the futility of our trying. The ghost is a smallish entity that emits a powerful light from its head and carries a cap that looks like a candle snuff. While being forced to relive painful moments from his life, Scrooge begs the ghost to stop showing him the abandonment and loneliness he had chosen to forget. "Haunt me no more!" Scrooge cries. He grabs the cap and pulls it down over the spirit. "But though Scrooge pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light." You can't extinguish the past, Dickens is saying (or put it off to January).
Something else caught my eye for the first time: Revisiting his school days, Scrooge sees his younger self alone in an empty classroom and says, "Poor boy!" Then he cries. Psychoanalysts tell patients that a critical part of coming to terms with the past is letting yourself mourn your losses, something Dickens was clearly getting at.
Dickens also understood something about resentment – how Scrooge's bitterness over his past separated him from the world. It now occurs to me that Dickens assigned the Ghost of Christmas Present a simple task: that of getting Scrooge out of the house for a change, away from his solitary routine of work, "melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern," and bed.
Scrooge and the spirit wander through a London alive with "the hopeful promise of the day" on Christmas morning, and travel to a small mining community, and even far out to sea, to witness people sharing kindnesses and love. Most critically, they visit the homes of Scrooge's clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his nephew, Fred, where Scrooge learns of the degree to which he is present in their lives, contrary to his assumption that they are irrelevant to him and he to them. Both men toast him in his absence. "Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself, always," Fred says of his uncle's reclusiveness. "I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he can find in his own thoughts."
Dickens tellingly gives the most important job to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: that of moving Scrooge to action. Scrooge at first believes that visions of the pathetic death of an unloved man are merely a warning. "I see, I see. The case of this unhappy man might have been my own. My life tends that way now," he tells the mute phantom. Scrooge assumes that recognizing his flaws will be enough to alter the course of his life. It is when he suddenly realizes that he is seeing his own lonely death that he resolves to become a better man.
Loss, and happiness
So what is the very first thing Dickens has Scrooge exclaim when he wakes up in his bed, clutching his bedpost and realizing he is still alive after visiting his own grave? "I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future!" The three ghosts have shattered the old miser's delusion that "you can live a life without loss," as Dr. Grosz puts it, by refusing to let him look away from his own suffering and the suffering he has caused others.
Dickens then sends Scrooge out into the world on Christmas morning. "He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure," Dickens writes. "He had never dreamed that any walk – that anything – could give him so much happiness."
Ebeneezer Scrooge doesn't change by suddenly being generous to others, although that is the action he takes to make amends. What really happens is that a sad, lonely man goes for a walk on Christmas Day and sees the world with fresh eyes.