Everybody thinks of changing humanity, but nobody thinks of changing himself.Leo Tolstoy
This month SITI Company is in rehearsals for a brand-new production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The look of surprise on peoples’ faces when I say that our next production is A Radio Christmas Carol is inevitable. Some raise their eyebrows. Others laugh.
And yet, if one looks beyond the sentimental ways this story has been told, the tale is profound. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol tells the story of resurrection, of redemption, of transformation, of grace. It was also written as a treatise against poverty and a plea for social and individual responsibility towards the unfair plight of the poor in 19th century England.
A Radio Christmas Carol was commissioned by the Fisher Center at Bard College. This year we are putting the initial strokes on the canvas, and we will perform our work-in-progress on December 18th and 19th in the magnificent Sosnoff Theater at the Fisher Center. Next December 2022, we will perform the fully realized piece, also at Bard.
Tony Award-winning sound designer and SITI Company member Darron West created the adaptation from Dickens’ original novella. He and I are co-directing this production. Darron has read the novella out loud every December for many years, and he is clearly following a scent in this collaboration. I am following his lead.
Dickens wrote the novella as a ghost story for Christmas in 1843. His Victorian London was a profoundly unjust society at the time, built on the backs of adult and children workers toiling in appalling conditions of poverty and abuse. Throughout his life, Dickens railed against this injustice. But he realized that the most effective way to reach the broadest segment of the population with his social concerns was to write a deeply felt Christmas narrative rather than polemical pamphlets and essays.
The character of Ebenezer Scrooge, in our production played by Will Bond, is an embodiment of the human tendency to ignore the poverty and inequity that surrounds them. From the very beginning, it is clear that Ebenezer has disavowed any personal responsibility for his fellow humans. He is described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” His only concerns are for himself and his money. He keeps to himself and minds his own business, and he wishes that everyone else would do so too. At the beginning of Dickens’ story, he appears as a two-dimensional character but then, through the magic of this ghostly journey, he grows into a man who possesses emotional depth and a regret for lost opportunities.
Perhaps we all have an Ebenezer Scrooge within us. I know that I do. It is only too easy for me to shut out the world, to put up walls, to compartmentalize, to choose to feel isolated. Life’s specific traumas can lead me to feelings of helplessness, loneliness, and they can urge me to be overly guarded and selfish. And this often leads to generalized anxiety, anger, and depression.
But deep within me, I am full of life. What can rescue me from shutting myself off from the world is wonder. And fiction is an effective machine for manufacturing wonder. Neuroscientists suggest that successful storytelling changes the neural circuitry of the brain. If I open myself sufficiently to the story, A Christmas Carol reminds me to be extra-careful about what consumes me. It instructs me to live with the past, the present and the future in mind, and in my heart. It reminds me that I can change or adapt in an instant if I choose to do so. It teaches me to remember to laugh a little more and live a little lighter, regardless of how much or how long I have weighed myself down with my assumptions about the world. I am reminded that I am able to break the chains of my own character and the choices that have bound me. But I must start by merging my insides with the outside. Dissolve the skin, join the world. In scientific terminology, this would be called “embodied cognition.” To stay close and to reach out at the same time. I say to myself, “Do not shut down. Stay tender.”
Metanoia is a beautiful Greek word which means “to change one’s mind on purpose.” This is distinguished from the word “repent,” which specifically means to sorrow, grieve, and turn away from sin. These are two drastically different meanings and outcomes. Metanoia implies the decision to turn around, to face a new direction. I propose that Ebenezer Scrooge experiences metanoia rather than repentance. He turns in a new direction.
Imagine that I am standing in a circle with you and a group of people. A light source is at the center of the circle which is bathed in darkness. But rather than facing the center and the illumination, unlike you, I am standing with my back to the light, facing outwards towards darkness. Ebenezer. When I am standing this way, facing away from the light, all that I can see is my own silhouette. I cannot see the light. I can only see my own shadow. Without being able to see you and the others in the circle with me, I am disconnected and alone in the dark. Now imagine that I find the courage to turn around, to face the light at the center of the circle. When I turn towards the light, I no longer only see darkness. When I turn towards the light, my shadow is now behind me. When I turn towards the light, I can immediately see you and the other people who are standing with me. I can see that the light is shining on everyone, and I see that we are all connected in its warmth.
Making the decision to turn around, to turn away from darkness, to face the light: this is metanoia.
William James used the word metanoia to describe a process of fundamental change in the human personality; an essential and stable change in an individual’s life-orientation. Carl Jung also employed metanoia to depict a spontaneous attempt of the psyche to heal itself of unbearable conflict by melting down and then being reborn in a more adaptive form. In transactional analysis, metanoia is used to illustrate the experience of abandoning an old-scripted self, or false self, for a more open one: a process which may be marked by a mixture of intensity, despair, self-surrender, and an encounter with the inner void.
Scrooge was given a great gift, a second chance. He was given the opportunity to take an objective look at his own life and see what he had been doing wrongly. He learned the necessity to give back to the community. We, the audience as witness, understand that it is never too late to change. Finally, Scrooge says, “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.”
Can Scrooge be our seasonal teacher? Who among us has not at times been selfish or turned inward because we did not want to be bothered? Who has not ignored the plight of the disadvantaged? Who among us has not become a bit smug about all that we do and condescending about how those little Bob Cratchits around us manage? What chains in our own lives are shackling us?
With help from the community of both the ghosts and the living, Scrooge ultimately chooses change. He chooses generosity over selfishness, people and relationships over money and materialism, and he chooses joy over bitterness. Through the re-telling of Christmas Carol, I am reminded that it is never too late to see the world in a new light and for my thinking to be constantly in the process of transformation. Ultimately, I learn that generosity can unlock doors inside of us. With Dickens’ profound story, I experience the power of language, narrative, thought, and speech to transform both the individual and the world.