December 16th, 2010

Ebenezer Scrooge and the Season of Second Chances

What I love most about the dark cold days of December is the opportunity they give us to notice and enjoy glimpses of contrasting light and warmth. Outdoors the cold makes everything sharp and clear and paradoxically we are more aware of the sun glinting off crystalline expanses of blinding white snow. Indoors we light fires, celebrate holidays and remind ourselves that anything is possible. True or not, this is something we need to believe because we see too much distress and suffering and know too well the importance of second chances. This is the season of second chances and Ebenezer Scrooge is its herald.

Poor Scrooge didn’t even know he was a miserable curmudgeon. It was always business as usual with never a break for a holiday, never a moment or a farthing to spare for his fellow man. He had what we psychologists would call an Axis II or Personality Disorder, a fixed way of going through life with no room even for the thought that he might be unhappy. Like a fish in the sea, Scrooge was unaware of the ambience in which moved – in his case, a miasma of gloom as thick and impenetrable as any London fog. To say that Scrooge was a man in need of change is to speak as an external observer, from a perspective clearly not his own. His clerk Bob Cratchit knew it and so did his cheerful nephew Fred but, except for Charles Dickens himself, no one was more convinced that change was in order than Jacob Marley, Ebenezer’s long dead business partner.

But how do you change a person who not only doesn’t want to change but also probably never even considered that change was an option? Pity Mr. Dickens having to confront this challenge without the benefit of the extra 100 years of clinical experience and psychotherapy outcome research that we modern psychologists enjoy. Somehow Dickens realized that Ebenezer first needed a healthy dose of motivational interviewing. With regard to change, Scrooge was clearly in the pre-contemplative stage and required some education about the costs and benefits of the alternatives he faced. Knowing further that he would have to adapt the intervention to his client, Dickens could not very well bring an existentially troubled Scrooge to a Harley Street phrenologist. An aggressive house call was in order and the long dead, jaw-wrapped, chain-dragging Marley was the ideal caller. He did not ask Scrooge to rate his readiness to celebrate Christmas on a 10-point scale and inquire what it would take to move him up a notch or two. Marley knew what it would take and, in a bold departure from an empathetic style (or maybe it was just tough love), he gave Scrooge no choice. Scrooge would be visited by three spirits and the first was due when the bell tolled one.

Now here is where we begin to glimpse Charles Dickens’ profound understanding of the therapeutic arts. Firmly grounded in psychodynamic principles yet to be discovered, the Ghost of Christmas Past appears with a “bright clear jet of light” emanating from the crown of its head. This beacon of insight would prove to be so intense and searing that Scrooge would try in vain to extinguish it by pressing the spirit’s cap down upon its head until the spirit itself had vanished. By then, the spirit’s work was done and Scrooge had been transported back to his lonely past and the reader introduced to his distant father, devoted younger sister, jolly first boss and heartbroken fiancée who cut her ties to the man she loved when his ambition and avarice crowded her out of his life.

Knowing that insight alone is rarely sufficient to produce change, Dickens gives us the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, two masters of cognitive behavioral and motivational interviewing techniques. Each of these next two visitors in turn pulls Scrooge out of his familiar surroundings and gives him a taste of exposure therapy. The Ghost of Christmas Present exposes him to the common life of humanity that he tries so hard to avoid, while the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come forces him to confront the baleful consequences of the selfish life he has been living.

The happy result of Scrooge’s intervention marathon spills across the page of Dickens’ tale with the image of the old man dancing for joy in his room on Christmas morning, “light as a feather…happy as an angel…merry as a school-boy, giddy as a drunken man.” Fellow psychologists, hold the lithium, savor the moment and forbear from calling 911 when Scrooge leans out of his window to ask what day it is. Give him his time of rejoicing for, as we all know, life will not always be so bright. Nephew Fred might lose his job and his wife become depressed. Tiny Tim could need another operation and Scrooge himself might wind up homeless on the streets of London. Don’t be surprised to see any one of them at your office door looking for a second chance at life. We all need an endless succession of second chances and, until the spirits come again, we will have to give them to one another.

 

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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