Author Archives: Don Meyer

Knowledge Is Not Wisdom

I love history; just about anyone’s, but especially my own. Sounds a little egotistical, doesn’t it? But the phrase “my own” is not meant to be about me. It is in reference to my predecessors, whether I am talking about family, business, or any endeavor I have recently joined. I like to know about who went before me, what they did, how, when and where, and especially why. Answering the why question I consider to be the most difficult since we reach our conclusions shackled to the unrelenting bias of being human. And that admission about being fallible brings me to the next point I wish to make about a challenging book I have just finished reading entitled Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May.

Near the start of their penultimate chapter they make a statement in which I truly delight. Anyone who loves history, whether they read it casually or study it intently, will recognize an affirmation for their time-traveling passion. Neustadt and May unashamedly declare, being historians themselves:

Vicarious experience acquired from the past, even the remote past, gives such guidance to the present that history becomes more than its own reward. Knowledge conveys wisdom; ignorance courts trouble. Persons of good sense are bound to study history in sheer self-interest, reaching out for reference points of likely future relevance and cramming in vicarious experience from each.

Cool. I am, by their account, a person of good sense. It says so in the last sentence of that quote. The nod to the value of my personal interest is sincerely appreciated, even though I am not one of the people they would include in their sub-title, a decision maker. Unless you consider debating whether or not to get out of bed in the morning a meaningful decision, I am currently not a maker of anything meaningful. I am retired, which makes me a history buff and not a true historian. I am not being paid for my research except in the currency of personal satisfaction in uncovering previous hidden or forgotten people, events and outcomes.

Here’s the rub, though. I respectfully disagree with their other assertion that knowledge conveys wisdom. I have simply had to live with, work with or associate with too many intelligent people, those human repositories of information, to see any direct correlation between knowledge and wisdom. We generally say of them that they lack common sense, although our unstated feelings may go much deeper and harbor more grudge than glory; more contempt than respect. In fact at this stage of my life I am more of an advocate for a quote by Angelo Codevilla, a professor of political science affiliated with the Hoover Institute at Stanford and with the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, who said There is never enough information to make up for weak leadership.

Knowledge will always be tempered by the weaknesses of our humanity. It does not automatically convey anything, which ironically makes the case for reading Neustadt and May’s book. Their methodology is designed to help make the transition from knowing things to understanding them and subsequently to make sound decisions based on that information. As a person of good sense, I can honestly recommend their work to anyone in any decision making capacity. But also being human with my own limitless supply of fallibility, I would counsel you to apply their own method against their writings, to analyze and evaluate their conclusions. It would be the wise thing to do.

Thucydides Had It Right

In last week’s message I mentioned how I am working my way through the book written by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May entitled Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers. When I say that I am working my way through this book you can understand that to mean that it is not an easy read. Maybe that’s just an admission that I lack the intellectual power of these two Harvard dons, but in all honesty, I think they could have benefitted from a better editor.

Of course my assumption is that they intended to be understood by their readers. There are too many casual asides and oblique insertions into the middle of sentences, which could have enhanced the text by being omitted. Such an excision would likely have reduced the book by a third and in that estimation you can easily see how I view needless excess as obscuring needed content. Still, I like what they have to say about how to properly use history in current decision making. One simply must endure the miasma of sentence structure to reap the benefits of their and one’s own efforts.

I am near the end of the book and the chapter in which they summarize their strategy for using history begins with a quote from Thucydides, the Athenian general and historian. They do this to underscore their belief, which I do share, that history has value. The quote they include from the great man and thinker is but a fragment of his introduction to his account of the internal Greek conflict known as the Peloponnesian War. He wrote in part … those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will at some time or other and in much the same ways be repeated in the future.

Now, having said all I said about the two authors being needlessly verbose in their writing, I am forced to say that here is a case where they said too little. Less is definitely not more. In fact they quoted too little. By eliminating the first part of what Thucydides said, we miss the full value of his own point about the uses of history in decision making.

What preceded his affirmation that we will find ourselves facing the same types of situations as those who lived before us is that 1) his account is factual, lacking any fanciful myths and speculations, and 2) as such we may find the truth unpleasant. In other words human behavior can really suck, but the value in the telling is to do it honestly so that we will be better prepared to respond in a more constructive way and not repeat past mistakes.

These are troubling times. They are made all the harder by the plethora of commentary, which has supplanted the news being broadcast these days. We the people would be better served if the rule of Thucydides prevailed with his modern day counterparts in the media. Facts, however unpleasant to ponder, are prerequisites for solving one’s problems. We get, it seems, fragments of true information, which is buffered by personal and sometimes wild speculations on what those chosen fragments mean.

If the great man were present he would tell us that this type of reporting is not new. We are, in fact, simply witnessing history repeating itself in terms of how events are reported and shaded to serve the reporter’s interest and not our own.

Thinking in Time

The title of this week’s message is taken from my latest read, Thinking in Time, by Richard E. Neustadt and Earnest R. May. Published in 1986 by The Free Press, a division of Macmillan, Inc. the book’s subtitle is its principal draw for me: The uses of history for decision makers. I am not a decision maker any longer of any rank. But there is a lingering desire to be one so the attraction has to do with the use of history in drawing accurate analogies when the need to make a decision occurs. One never knows when the next opportunity may occur.

I am a historian of sorts; a hobbiest would be a good way to think of my interest. It started at an early age, when I had access to my older brother’s library of biographies about famous people – think Washington, Lincoln, Franklin and others – written for a juvenile audience. That put their personal histories in reach of my limited grasp, which subsequently helped to shape my own destiny.

During my poor performance in school, especially during those high school years when you are supposed to demonstrate some level of mature performance, my best work was in the history classes available to me. Without the favorable grades earned there, I would have likely failed high school and found myself sliding down the pipeline to the draft and military service in Viet Nam. Instead I salvaged my youthful ignorance for a stint in college, the state college system in California being my deliverer. They accepted my weak grade point average and my money and in exchange I attained a student deferment and a new appreciation for the one topic in which I could excel.

I had the good fortune to have access to some truly great history professors, who were generous with their time. They counseled me regarding my enthusiastic pursuit of history. My only regret is that it took me until my senior year to discover that I could do meaningful work in research and analysis, while expressing my insights with the written word. Since graduation I have continued to indulge my interest in history of various places, eras and personages. I have managed to make use of it even though my professional career has been in management with a strong emphasis on accounting. Drawing on my knowledge of others’ experiences helped to inform my decisions when called upon to lead in the shaping an organization’s policies and performance.

I am now two years into retirement and the need to prepare for the next great decision is still present in my thinking, even though the occasions to do so no longer seem relevant. Still, I hold out hope; hence the appeal of the Neustadt and May book. One never knows when the call to duty will occur and I wish to be as prepared as possible both in possessing a substantial storehouse of historic examples and the means of knowing how to process and apply them with any semblance of credibility.

The authors make use of their own in depth analysis of significant events in American history to make their case about how to use history in making informed decisions. I have subsequently learned more details about events, which have taken place since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt through the Reagan era. And that alone is of value to me. Where they take you in this series of revelations, however, is to challenge the thinking of the primary players in how they used history in making historic decisions.

Their verdicts are not always complimentary in terms of the performance today’s students read about in their history texts. Their approach is also dicey since it sets them up for a counterpunch by other historians, who disagree with their conclusions if not their methodology. I find it worth the read and would offer a quote from their book as a cautionary tale to anyone who would follow in their footsteps: The future can never look exactly like the past.” Making connections between today’s challenges and prior events is an uncertain proposition. It is extremely necessary though, especially among the corporate and government elite, or else we will be subject to the shallowest knee-jerk reactions at every turn.

I think we do need to dampen the ardor of today’s sensationalists, who know how to capture media attention but lead us astray with their fuzzy thinking and short-term applications. Thinking in the nick of time is perhaps the best we can hope for. Thinking by making the best use of time, those historic experiences which brought us to where we are today, should be the standard we expect of our leaders. It needn’t be the dull recitation one usually associates with history lectures and their subsequent exams determining our grade point averages.

And while life may seem to be graded on a pass-fail basis, we should all aspire to do better. 

Travelers

Immigration is a hot topic these days. I am using the word “days” here as a comfortable euphemism to disguise the fact that immigration has become a never-ending topic of debate, which seems – like God – to have had no apparent beginning and no obvious end. Or maybe I should say that it is like some neurotic version of hell since it seems to come with its own inescapable form of condemnation and punishment for those engaged in the debate as well as those in torment awaiting a peaceful resolution.  

At times it seems to have the same caustic effect on our nation as slavery did in the decades prior to the Civil War. No matter what the explicit topic is under discussion, immigration influences positions taken and the virulence of the antagonists, who somehow manage to construct a connection between it and all other issues. Hence we have a budgetary driven shutdown with a border wall being the immovable object proving that our government is in all actuality a stoppable force.

Personally, I am opposed to building a wall across the southern part of our nation which borders Mexico. Such walls took on a sinister presence when the Russians put one up in Berlin. Its fall was a humiliating defeat for its contractors and a cause of universal celebration with everyone else. We seem to be tempting the same fate, which would truly make us deplorable, but as a nation, not as a single person or a minority of blind followers. Walls do not make good neighbors, but they do make for divisive politics internally and the loss of trust with needed allies externally.

I think it is time that we remove the onus attached to the topic of immigration or more precisely to the people we label as immigrants. We do, after all, celebrate some occasions where large numbers of people moved between nations to great effect. Moses led the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt and into the promise of the America of his day. The nation of Israel came about as a result, which today serves as a beacon of democratic rule surviving in the midst of totalitarian regimes. 

Think of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad secretly bringing undocumented workers north during the Civil War era. Think of those anonymous heroes, who helped the people of Hebrew heritage and other undesirables escape persecution from Nazi occupied Germany before and during WWII. The US benefited both times from the new influx of labor and knowledge brought within our borders by those seeking asylum, allowing us to rightfully accept the mantel of being liberators from ethnic, political and economic oppression.

For those of us who follow the Christian faith, we often forget that Jesus told his followers, before his ascension into heaven, to migrate across the entire planet, preaching the good news and immersing people into the new faith. We are a people of missionary endeavors and pilgrimages, which perpetuate the original concept of Christians being transient representatives of a spiritual nation and not one confined to definable borders.

We have a genius in this country of effectively renaming toxic and divisive issues in order to make them more palatable. One case which I admire, but do not agree with, is the name evolution for the concept of viewing abortion as a woman’s exclusive choice about – of all things – the termination of conception. They were once chastised for their pro-abortion stance, but the a-word has its own sinister connotations; murder being one. So the label migrated (pun intended) into that of pro-choice, which eventually settled on the brilliant designation of being about women’s reproductive health. And who can be against such a progressive and humanitarian proposition? Name changes work wonders on our collective psyche. So let’s indulge in a new one.

I wish with this week’s message to take my own stab of repositioning the immigration topic by giving its participants a new title to enhance their image and make them more desirable as neighbors. Let’s take the sting out of the issue of immigration by giving all those people, who are passionately crossing various borders on our planet, the new and innocuous name of Travelers. We are, after all, a nation of travelers of one kind or another as exemplified in our own transportation history.

On this continent what were once deer paths became foot trails. Wagon tracks became rail lines. Dirt roads begat paved roads, which begat freeways and divided highways, which ultimately led to the creation of the entire interstate system, which is still under construction, by the way; an infrastructure in need of more support, while providing greater value than any border wall. Trains, planes and automobiles keep us on the move at a pace of which our ancestors could not even imagine. We migrate. We just don’t call it that. Instead we travel and have even found a way to get perks for the number of miles we accumulate chasing after the enticements offered by commercial behemoths profiting from our mobility. Therefore, let’s use our native ingenuity to find the means to address an unfortunate imbalance between classes of travelers. We don’t have to give up going first class by making sure others have access to steerage. My European ancestors got here that way.

We already make use of the term Dreamers for some of our fellow travelers, but that term is generally applied only to children. What about the adults? They need a more gracious, more forgivable nom de plume to make them acceptable as aspirants for a better life. I have written before of my own conviction that as long as America is the Beautiful, immigration will be an issue for us. So let’s launch this idea of a simple name change for those seeking entry onto our super highways and see how well it travels.

Heart and Home: An Internal Affair

Everyone is likely familiar with the time honored cliché Home is where the heart is. My understanding of that comforting aphorism allowed home to have the priority in my thinking, inverting the sequence by putting the heart into a tangible residence.

Home for me was a place, a house with a yard and a neighborhood full of friends; all of which provided the safety and security I associate with a happy childhood. I grew up there with the assurance that I was loved and would be provided for in terms of food, clothing and shelter. Home was where my heart resided as a consequence of all these good things, with the outside world providing an increasingly less friendly alternative the further away I wandered from the boundaries of my affection.

The home of my youth is the one I tried to replicate for my wife and children, with the assumption that their hearts would find their comfort in another well-worn phrase, a sense of place. For the heart to be at peace, in my understanding of well-being, a physical location was essential. Having an address, a means of providing directions to others that one desired for companionship as house guests of any duration, was foundational for providing a home where the heart abides. But with age and an uncompromising change in personal circumstances, my perception of this sentiment has undergone its own radical transformation.

I no longer have a home. What I mean is that I am no longer the owner of a place where food and shelter are prominent features of all that I have worked for in providing for those who share my name and – for a time – my aspirations for us together as a family. Now everyone is grown and gone, having attained their independence. This left the need for a physical property with little of value beyond the financial return on investment to be gained from maintaining a property in a marketable location. And so I sold what became an antiquated asset, leaving me a guest of indeterminate duration elsewhere.

Heart has now taken pride of place in my thinking. Home and all its salient features is where I am, my heart defining value in a world that cannot be purchased by paper currency and coin, or plastic either, for that matter. Observing this reversion from things past to a more appropriate understanding of the affair between heart and home, I am left with the conclusion that I had the sequence wrong all along. Heart always defined home, not the other way around. The tangible entity was just that; walls, roof, windows, lights and their furnishings. What mattered most was metaphysical not solidly physical; spiritual, not temporal.

I can now more correctly say that Solomon had it right when counseling his own children about the heart’s supremacy: Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.

I Am My Own Student

I was recently asked by an acquaintance about why I write. You will have to take my word for it, since I alone can see my website statistics, that my reach, in the case of my weekly messages, does not exceed my grasp. In other words, my audience is extremely limited.

Therefore the why I write question would appear to be valid as I have no substantial audience to admire my work. And I agree about its validity, but for a different reason. When asked, I had no easy answer for why I do this. The question subsequently took on what was probably an unintended diabolical life beyond its validity, thereby attaining the status of being truly haunting. No matter how much time elapsed from the day of my inquisition to the present moment and no matter how many other activities were available to me in supplying convenient distractions, the question continually intruded on my thinking as I lacked that simple and above all honest resolution.

I started writing a web log when I was an employed administrator at a nonprofit organization. My reasons were clear enough then. I needed to have free access to my audience of members, donors and other influencers as opposed to limiting myself to the house organs controlled by people not always aligned with my thinking. I needed the free rein in order to advocate for my governance philosophy of providing vision, transparency and accountability concerning the organization I managed. Otherwise, all three goals were at the mercy of those who were in opposition to me, even though passive in the absence of face-to-face aggression, if I remained content to subjecting my messages to their wielding complete editorial indiscretion. Anyone interested who had internet capabilities could know the why of my actions as well as the customary what, when, how and where of them.

When I retired, I continued writing and posting messages, somewhat out of habit and somewhat to satisfy the personal joy I get from the process. So if the euphoria of composition is a private indulgence, why not just keep a diary or journal? Why go public? The answer to that question has come to me in a convoluted way, but just in time to quality as a resolution coinciding with the start of a new year.

I am a reader as well as a writer and both seem to come at a plodding pace. If I have read many books it is due to my persistence and my advanced age, which has produced a significant catalogue of completed good (and not so good) reads. And it is to my most recent come to closure reading endeavor that I owe a debt of gratitude for helping me understand myself in my daily pursuit of the written word; my own as well as the words of others.

The book in which I found some intellectual as well as emotional salvation is entitled While It Is Day, the autobiography of Elton Trueblood. A noted author, teacher, pastor and philosopher of Quaker ancestry and allegiance, he divided the story of his life into different themes as opposed to a strict adherence to the chronology of years and experience. Each theme constituted a chapter in his book, one of them focusing on his formal education. He wrote with regards to the twenty-eight year period of his student status that it was the longest “chapter” of his life. And then he concluded But of course it never really ended. I hope to remain a student as long as I live.

Pondering those words I found my own resolve as to why I write and more specifically why I submit to this weekly pattern of messages and postings. Step one was the realization that I, too, hope to never stop learning. As miserable of a student as I was through all of my years of primary and secondary education, I eventually matured into someone who values knowledge and became willing to submit to the discipline of acquiring this openly accessible treasure. Reading remains my primary means of attaining it. However, to make the leap to the writing aspect of my public pursuits, there has to be a step two or corollary to the desire to learn. And what I have found is that I have a need to teach.

This need has been present all my adult life as seen in the way I raised my children, guided staff and volunteers at work, and in the ongoing habit of writing these messages. The discipline of writing drives both the learning and the teaching processes. This message provides a good example. Seeking knowledge about the philosophy of Elton Trueblood obviously informed the content of this message. And if anyone cares to delve into the backlog of my messages, the evidence will be clear that so much of what I write is inspired by the intellectual path laid down by others.

As a teacher, I am my own student. What I acquire in the way of knowledge is always internalized to some degree as I value the personal benefits such information brings in forming my character and thereby my practices and performance. But I cannot rest content in hoarding what I believe to be true. Just as I sought to guide my children at home, my staff at work, and all other acquaintances through example first and instruction when necessary, I will continue to write these messages even if the size of my audience remains in the single digits. There is joy to be found in both the acquisition and in the sharing. Writing is my means for doing so.

The Kind Hand Trembled

The title of this week’s message is a quote from the book I have been writing about all month, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The challenge for anyone familiar with the story is to determine whose hand, from all of the characters populating this familiar tale, was subject to such a tremulous impulse. There are several possibilities as nearly all of them are portrayed in various stages of animation for reasons appropriate to their role in the story. But whose kind hand is said to have trembled? And why?

The answer is not something you are likely to know from watching one of the many live action or animated versions of the story. But the fact that it is just the hand that is referenced in this quote should provide enough of a clue to solve the riddle, even for those whose only exposure to the story is through one of those many televised adaptations of the Dickens classic. For the hand in question is the only visible part of the third of Scrooge’s spectral visitors, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The voiceless, formless apparition is all the more ominous for its lack of definition save this one important feature by which it communicates its intentions to Scrooge, leading him and us – as an eager audience – through the concluding scenes, which ultimately guide the old man to his redemptive destination.

Sinister is the word we might likely choose, however, over the representation of the hand as being kind, if we base our perception on the usual fearful portrayal we see in each annual telecast. Dickens, himself, prompts us to regard Scrooge’s future in this way as the Ghost appears at the stroke of midnight, dressed in a black hooded robe, which renders it hardly distinguishable from the darkness surrounding it. Bells toll the hour as the specter’s approach is described by Dickens as gliding like a mist across the ground, causing Scrooge to kneel before its presence for the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. And then there’s the hand in question, first pointing at Scrooge and then in the direction they are to go on the final terrifying path to restoration.

How many of us fear the future? Or view it with ominous apprehension? Dickens tests us in this way by playing up the obvious aspects of our fears; the dark, the loss of control, the journey into the unknown. But along the way he makes one of his intrusive speeches, which is the prerogative of any author, as the means to express thoughts which cannot be easily conveyed through any character in the story. It occurs at the moment when Scrooge is bidden to uncover the corpse lying on the bed in an abandoned bedroom; a setting shorn of the usual comforts we associate with someone’s final repose. There are no mourners to grieve the loss or a single bouquet as a token of someone’s sympathy.

It is here that Dickens tells us of the difference between the death of a good man and that of a bad one. It is in the legacy each one leaves that we see this distinction. One is cold, rigid and alone as is the case with the corpse lying before Scrooge and his spectral guide. The other, though his heart is just as still and the lifeless hand just as heavy, Dickens eulogizes as a righteous man, whose hand was once 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! Even in death the great soul works for the care of others.

So where does that leave us with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come’s kind hand that is said to tremble?

At different times Scrooge is said to feel the Ghost’s attention through the movement of its shroud, as if its head is inclined towards him in an act of assessment, evaluating Scrooge’s response to each scene. By this slight movement we cannot truly know the Ghost’s thinking for it is only by its hand that we can clearly understand the Ghost’s intentions; where to go, what to look at, when to leave. And even with this bare physical manifestation of the spectral body, Dickens must ultimately help us out by specifically stating that the hand is kind just in case we did not see the correlation between the open, generous hand of a righteous man and the guiding hand of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

That the hand is seen trembling when Scrooge makes his final capitulation to keeping faith with all three Christmas spirits presents us with an image of approval at the remorse being openly shown by Scrooge. It is as if there is some regret in having subjected an old man to this type of treatment, the image of its trembling hand an act of sharing in Scrooge’s own trembling condition as he clutches at the Ghost’s once forbidding robe. The Ghost pulls itself free and Scrooge is left clutching at a bedpost.

We know the rest of the joyous story. Good triumphs over evil once again. And we can all conclude the reading with a happy heart. We can also conclude the reading with a bit of insight that the future need not be dreadful based on the condition of our hearts.

We are at the end of a calendar year, which is the popular time to reflect and things past and make current resolutions for a better future. We do not need to fear what lies ahead, as Dickens’ story helps us to understand. The hand of fate can be just as kind to us as the hand that trembled in The Christmas Carol. The point is to be the kind of person Dickens described as one whose deeds sow the world with life immortal. We have the opportunity at hand to make life what we will and know that our legacy will have a positive impact on others for many years to come.

Keepers

If you have been reading my December series of messages then you know by now that I have been relying on Charles Dickens and his classic story, A Christmas Carol, to keep me inspired and on track for posting these snippets of personal insights on a timely basis.  Keeping, in fact, is the theme of this week’s message, drawn on the profession made by Ebenezer Scrooge near the story’s end to be a keeper of a specific kind. Clutching the hem of the robe worn by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the reformed miser ardently proclaimed:

I will honor 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.  

Many of us profess to be keepers as well; not in the popular fashion of being someone else’s personal possession as a woman might say of a good man she’s met that he’s a keeper, but in the traditional sense of maintaining our integrity by being true to our word. Like me you may have once upon a time pledged allegiance to our country’s flag, pledged to uphold a scouting motto, or pledged yourself to be ever faithful to a significant other. These types of gestures were earnestly made as we willingly accepted the responsibility that comes with being a keeper of our oaths, pledges and promises.

Like me you may have also reached a stage in your life where you can look back and see that some of those promises have been long forgotten as if they became no longer relevant to our lives, while others assault our sense of duty for being completely broken. Fortunately for us Scrooge can serve as our example as one who found out in the appropriate course of time that the damage done is not always irreparable. And just as fortuitously for us there is hidden in his pledge to be a keeper of the Christmas spirit a few hints about what it takes to remain faithful to such open ended commitments that by rights should prevail for a lifetime.

The first is a perception of what it means to be a person of honor in order to project that character quality on to the object or cause we intend to keep. Scrooge vowed to honor Christmas, but in order to do that a sense of honor had to reside within him in order for it to be projected without. He found it through a kaleidoscopic sequence of experiences in which he learned about his impact on others and how they viewed him for it. The revelation was quite humbling. Honor requires humility. Otherwise we will be incapable of holding another person, place, or concept in high esteem, which is an intrinsic aspect of honoring. We must lower ourselves to regard something other than ourselves as being great.

Second, we must consider the need for consistency. Christmas is, after all, a once a year thing, but Scrooge’s solution for not dropping back into his old habits during the off-season was to keep the spirit of the event year round.  In essence the joy, fellowship, and generosity associated with December the 25th was to become a daily habit, a life style, and not an occasional observance. The same remains true for us. Keeping must become a daily habit. Otherwise what has often been called the tyranny of the urgent will easily and certainly displace our well-intended resolutions.

Third is perspective. Scrooge vowed to live in the past, the present and the future, which is to value both one’s heritage and one’s prospects in order to make conditions better for everyone else in the present. A person of character draws strength from every past experience as a means to inform his present actions to shape a more promising future. For Scrooge it was the memory of his sweet sister Fan, the beauty of his sweetheart Belle, and the exuberance of his generous employer Fezziwig that allowed him to put into a proper perspective the harsh conditions that had originally corrupted his soul and formed him into a miserable miser in need of redemption. The prospect of helping the Cratchit family escape their dire circumstances was his route to finding a cause greater than himself; a promise kept thanks to the past and the future serving to shape his behavior in the present.

Fourth is conviction.  All of us need some type of creed on which to base our convictions. For Scrooge it was the lessons learned from all three Christmas spirits, which continued to strive within him as the prime motivator of his new found life. Most of us have managed to internalize some set of standards formulated outside of ourselves, upon which we base what convictions we hold dear as a catalyst for our role of being keepers. Others, perhaps, have chosen a cafeteria approach, picking what pleases them and rejecting what does not, which is typically the standards that demand a sacrifice. Scrooge’s “all in” gambit is one of content as well as duration, vowing to never – over time – shut out the lessons imparted by the Christmas spirits. Learning, therefore, is perpetual and will subsequently, continually inform our success as keepers.

There is a point five in this scenario, which is the virtue of transparency. It becomes evident at the story’s end, when Dickens writes of Scrooge that:

… it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

Seeing is believing is a well-worn adage we have all heard invoked at some time in our lives about someone, if not ourselves. Seeing is the consequence of someone living openly, creating transparency regarding their words and deeds and even their motives.

Transparency by default creates accountability, so maybe I should include the “a” word as point six in the lessons taught in A Christmas Carol about being a keeper of one’s commitments. When our behavior is candidly on display for others to see, they will, also by default, assess our performance. It is human nature to critique, if not to criticize, others. Gossip often ensues. For Scrooge it was the gossip of laughter, which bothered him not at all. People found it amusing to see the change in Dickens’ redeemed rogue. In fact Scrooge laughed at himself, if only for the joy of witnessing his own transition and the benefit it brought to others, even the mockers, who at least had a good laugh at Scrooge’s expense.

Humility – not to be confused with humiliation – motivated Scrooge to live a life of care, concern, and compassion. His emergence as a keeper has provided ceaseless, if only annual, entertainment for us all. And now we know how the gift of keeping can best be done.

Home: A Reflection of the Soul

He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his partner. They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be ….

Any idea what a “lowering pile of building” might be? How about the appearance of a “locomotive hearse” ascending a broad staircase? You needn’t understand these archaic terms in order to apprehend the ominous aspects of a house inhabited by someone we are to view as possessing these same repulsive qualities. A home, after all, is the reflection of the owner’s soul and in this case the sole inhabitant of this disquieting structure is Ebenezer Scrooge. It is a house, as we all well know, where haunted dreams do take place in the dead of night.

I am a fan of Charles Dickens and indulge in an annual reading of his most popular seasonal story, A Christmas Carol. This practice, in turn, has afforded me an easy means for writing out my own thoughts under Dickens’ tutelage, so to speak. I enjoy his over the top descriptions of inanimate objects to tell us about the less visible features of the characters they mimic. Consider his poetic defilement of the entrance to Scrooge’s home as a supplement to the gloom of the “suite of rooms”he will ultimately enter for his encounter with his spectral visitors. The fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.

 All these features provide us with ominous tidings bereft of comfort and joy. Even the doorknocker has a part to play in portending what lies ahead for Scrooge as it momentarily transforms into the face of his deceased partner and former resident of this same dreary mansion, Jacob Marley.Bare of any other ornamentation the house can be said to be careworn, which isan odd way of saying that it is indeed worn out from being inhabited for too many years by men, who lacked aesthetic tastes, leaving it without any care for its condition. The setting, therefore, perfectly reflects Scrooge’s treatment of people. They are used, but not cared for, their subsequent economic poverty as obvious to any of us as their emotional straits are dire.

 One of the things we might miss in the reading – or the viewing if you are limited to watching one of the many adaptations of this novella – is the way the house reflects the school of Scrooge’s youth. When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes him back to the scenes of his childhood his initial awareness of his surroundings is one of glee as he sees all of his youthful classmates exuberant over their holiday reprieve. But that all changes as they come into view of the house, which served as a school for boys.

 It was a large house,but one of broken fortunes; for the spacious offices were little used, their walls were damp and mossy, their windows broken, and their gates decayed. Fowls clucked and strutted in the stables; and the coach houses and sheds were overrun with grass. Nor was it more retentive of its ancient state, within; for entering the dreary hall, and glancing through the open doors of many rooms,they found them poorly furnished, cold and vast. There was an earthy savor in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candlelight, and not too much to eat.

Scrooge, of course, is once again the lone inhabitant of a dismal structure, having been denied the joy of going home for Christmas due to the harsh neglect afforded him by his father. While the remembrance of things past prompts him to regret his own treatment of a boy singing – appropriately –a Christmas carol outside the door of his counting house, the scene slowly changes as Scrooge’s former self grew larger at the words, and the room became a little darker and more dirty. The panels shrank, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead ….

Plaster crumbles. Hearts do too.

Scrooge’s wealth did not lead to the opulence we might expect of a prosperous man. Instead of making a better or more comfortable life for himself, he used his money to replicate the misery of his childhood. What we get is the suggestion that we all tend to recreate what we know. Scrooge’s dismal surroundings as a child are salvaged from his brief respite as an apprentice under the pleasant and generous spirit of Mr. Fezziwig, reflecting our tendency to replicate the past rather than replace it. . Only the new setting is constructed on a grander scale, which is to say with a meaner scope and more resolute exile from humanity than that which was forced upon him by a heartless father.

By these words and images Dickens bids us enter into an otherwise very private and solitary domain, reflecting the soul of a man who administers universal misery. Scrooge endures a harsh redemption, as he must. The rigidity of his gloomy confinement in heart as well as in home requires a traumatic transition in order to attain normalcy. Death is part of it; a death enlivened – ironically – by the callow treatment of the deceased’s legacy by those,who only see personal gain from what should be regarded as a tragedy. They are Scrooge in miniature and this final revelation disheartens the old miser to the extreme. Only in his case, losing one’s heart is a good thing as it finds a replacement embedded with a more compassionate spirit.

The Saving Grace of Beauty

As much as I am a curmudgeon when it comes to resisting the commercialization of Christmas, I do have my own traditions to follow, costing me little but still held by me as dearly precious because of this lack in marketable value. One of these is my annual reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I came by this story as a child the way most of us do, watching one of the many adaptations of the novella available to us on television – and that once again coming to me at no cost.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I took up a softcover copy of the book and worked my way through its circuitous route to redemption; a change you could say was mine as much as Ebenezer’s.  I was amazed at how much of the text for such a short work still had to be excised in order to fit the many characters and scenes into a celluloid time capsule. Discovering the true scope of the work was a transcendent experience, marking me with a sense of loyalty to Dickens’ original vision and purpose in creating his marvelous composition.

Last week I posted a lament about one of the failings of the film versions of this story, the loss – intended or otherwise – of the Christian message inherent in a miser’s transformation from a one-dimensional impersonation of a human being into a multi-faceted participant in society with a humbled, compassionate and generous spirit. Without quoting chapter and verse, Dickens gave Scrooge the soul of a disciple, whose actions befit the description offered by Jesus of those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

We credit Scrooge’s going through the change of life to the visitations and administrations of the three spirits foretold by Jacob Marley’s ghost. But the role of these three apparitions is little more than that of supernaturally endowed tour guides, expertly revealing the necessary scenes to induce an internal sense of shock and awe in the old fellow’s crusty and thoroughly calcified heart. It is the people who inhabit these scenes, who induce the feelings of remorse and repentance which lead to Scrooge’s reformation.

For my part I find three of these characters essential to the story’s success, though you may have ample cause to disagree with me on this point. All three are female and all three exhibit the one external quality that makes the internal virtues they possess (which we are supposed to prize above all) perfectly appealing. And that is the quality of beauty; gentleness, compassion, joy, perseverance and affection follow.

The first of my three beauties is Fan, Scrooge’s younger sister. We see her only when she arrives at her brother’s school with the glad tidings that their father is so much nicer now and has consented to her pleas of allowing Ebenezer to come home. She brings color to the otherwise drab appearance of the school before she departs with her prize. We see in this contrast a clear distinction between living and merely existing. And it is here that Scrooge takes his first tentative step towards redemption.

My second choice is Belle, Scrooge’s fiancée. We have no basis for believing that this is an affectionate shortening of a longer proper name like Maybelle, Clarabelle, or Lulabelle. Therefore we can take her literally at face value (pun intended) and understand that Dickens was relying on our knowledge of French to understand that her name represented her captivating features, for Belle means beauty when conversing a La Francaise.

She makes a sudden appearance during which she terminates her engagement to Scrooge because he treasures money more than he does her. We see her a second time in an episode many years after the fateful denouement of her romance with Scrooge, only this time she is the centerpiece of a happy home; married with exuberant children and a supportive husband about her. Check out the illustrations of A Christmas Carol by Arthur Rackham and you will see that my assessment of her was shared by this impeccable illustrator and why seeing her in her happy estate she is the cause for Scrooge’s extinguishing the light of the Ghost of Christmas Past. A step back, perhaps, from the two steps he had taken forward.

My third and final choice is the one you may find easy to refute due to its tenuous hold on reality, even for an examination of a work of fiction. It is Fan reborn in the persons of her son Fred and his charming, anonymous wife. Fred has all the virtues of the persistent and loving person his mother was with regard to her older brother Ebenezer. Fred’s wife has Fan’s physical frailties, which make her exquisitely delicate as she serves as an overseer but non-participant in all of the Christmas Day festivities. It is her approval Scrooge seeks to secure when he appears at their home following his total reclamation as a responsive and responsible human being.

This fantasy merge of personalities may be overreach on my part, but it allows me to press home my personal interpretation of Dickens’ masterpiece as a means to express an opinion about the meaning of life as I see it.

Without beauty life would have no meaning. In a world devoid of the delectable décor of landscapes, habitations and the human heart, we would forebear the pursuit of living as there would be no inspiration for attaining possessions, prestige, lovers and the offspring who perpetuate our self-image. Love may be a many-splendored thing, seemingly capable of making the world go round. But without a beautiful, transformative object on which to bestow our affection, love would simply be another four-letter word and hardly worth the effort to make in any way, shape or form. We would all be as stubbornly selfish and intransigently tightfisted as misers, simply marking time until our meager lights are extinguished as the only benefit to bless an otherwise benighted world.