Personal development according to Dickens

Few characters have undergone such a transformation so quickly as Scrooge during three nights in the classic A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

One of the most beloved stories in western literature. It tells the story of Scrooge, a mean spirited, miserly old man. His attitude towards society is one of borderline contempt.

He is visited by four ghosts, who show him the true cost of this attitude. It’s such a profound experience that afterwards he sees his life and himself differently. Something shifts in his worldview, he realises how much suffering he has undergone, is going through and what he’s spreading to others.

Such truth changed him and it can for you.

I want you to use these same ghosts to examine your own life and where you see it going.

The Ghost of Marley (Or your dead self)

His former business partner is the first ghost he sees. Scrooge dismisses him at first, thinking him a figment of his own mind.

Marley speaks of his torment and the pain of regret. He wears the chains he forged himself in life, those of work, money, and possessions.

He failed in life, and this is the reason why he wanders, neither living nor dead. He neglected those around him, the people he could have helped. Nothing can bring back the life that was so carelessly wasted.

‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business’

Ghost of Marley

He offered Scrooge a warning, a chance to change his ways and avoid the same fate. The ghost told him he would be visited by three more ghosts, one each successive night.

The Ghost of the Past

Scrooge sees himself as a child. There is both joy at seeing familiar places and faces he had long forgotten. But he also felt sorrow, that he was so alone as a child.

He remembered the joyous people he once knew, from his sister, Little Fan, to Fezziwig his mentor.

Then he sees himself as a young man, with a woman by his side. But he has changed from his former self however. The woman speaks of this, commenting on his pursuit of wealth over all else.

‘Another idol has displaced me.. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you…’

It’s worth asking: If you were to meet your younger self(s) what would you say to them?

This is a way of thinking about your life as a whole so far. Have you made mistakes? What would you do differently? What have you learned? What do you still struggle with?

Does your younger self have anything to say to you?

What do you see in your younger self that you feel you’ve lost? Joy, curiosity?

If you find you can’t think of much to say, as I have learned it’s not too late to change. The past is about a life worth retelling. So what do you want your story to be about?

What do you regret not doing? Opportunities missed. Did you spend your time wisely? Have you lived the life you imagined and hoped for when you were his/her age?

If your answer is no, do not be troubled, I feel many of us don’t. For all of us the past is pockmarked by failure and mistakes. Yet that is required if we are to learn and grow.

I would tell my younger self all the knowledge and wisdom I have accrued. So something of fear, and loneliness. The importance of connection with others and much more.

My answer to this question can be found in a short letter I wrote to myself here. I wanted to tell the young Richard what is important. What works and doesn’t. What to focus on, and what will lead him astray. I will tell him of some of the experiences I had.

But I do not want it to stop with the me. I want to change the world.  So my horizons have expanded to living a richer and fuller life for myself by helping others do the same. It comes from a very real fear I have.

I don’t want my life to mean nothing.

The Ghost of the Present

This ghost shows Scrooge the many people enjoying Christmas this day.

He learns what others think of him, from the Cratchit’s and his own nephew.

‘I am sorry for him; I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself, always. Here, he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence? He don’t lose much of a dinner’

Scrooge’s nephew.

What if a ghost of yourself as you are now were to turn up and provide an audit of your life?

This other ghost would look at what you spend your time on. What passions you follow, even what food you eat, the lifestyle you lead. What possession you have collected and why. The skills you are learning, the contribution you are making.

What do you think the ghost would find about your own life, and how do you feel about it?

Curiously this ghost is probably the one we are most familiar with. It’s the one we feel when we have a niggling sensation that something is wrong with our lives.

Is what you are doing now, the life you lead the one you want, the sort of person you want to be?

Chances are some of your answers will not be what you want them to be, and this is the mission of this ghost. Just don’t forget a caveat. We can’t spend all of our time on things we want to do.

The Ghost of the future

Here Scrooge learns of his fate and how others will greet his death.

‘…trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.’

He sees those wretched creatures who desecrate his body by stealing his clothes. He sees the impact his death had on others. But what upsets him the most is when he learns of the death of Tiny Tom.

If you were to see your older self, say on your deathbed what would you want your older self to say to you?

What do you want other people to say of you at your eulogy? What words carved on your headstone?

On your deathbed the only thing you will have to take with you are the memories and experiences you have acquired. So what memories do you want?

It is the realisation of a certain dreadful inevitability. Death, and that scares people as it does me.

What do you want to be remember for?

This is about legacy and accomplishment.

What do you want your life to look like, when you are as old as your future self?

That I created, I achieved, I changed and grew. I learned, lived and I loved. I made this world a better place for me being here, no matter how small that contribution.

Over to you

These ghosts, the questions they proffer up are the first step towards breaking free of the herd mentality, the sleepwalking life we can so easily fall into.

Awareness always comes first. You must cultivate it every day. Otherwise you might slip back into the old patterns of thought and behaviour.

Take time to think upon these questions and any others that may come to you. Write down what thoughts you have and have them close by to remind you of what you are aiming for. Keeping a journal of thoughts and ideas is a good practice. One that I do myself.

Sometimes we need to be jolted out of our complacency, to see something more clearly. It is important to ask these questions often because it helps keep us on course . We spend so much of our time in the day-to-day rush that we neglect to seek and find out what matters to us most.

A little introspection is needed. That’s the lesson these ghosts bring to us.

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Illustration by Harry Furniss. Scanned by Philip V. Allingham.