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Some of my favorite scenes in cinema and literature are displays of clarity: Scrooge waking up as essentially a different person after the third ghost’s visit or Bill Murray living his day to the fullest in the last scene of Groundhog Day.
What makes these scenes so powerful is that they help us realize that we’ve been living our lives in exactly the opposite way that we should be.
Like Scrooge, we usually worry about our finances and our careers more than helping those around us. And while we know that this prioritization is probably misplaced, there’s not much we can do, right? We have full time jobs and there are bills to pay, so we don’t have much time to think outside ourselves, especially if we have families or other obligations. We’re just well-intentioned people, constrained by a system that binds us to these other priorities.
Notice how this logic isn’t all too different from what Scrooge says early on in A Christmas Carol. When confronted with poverty, he mutters, “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses. Are they still in operation?" Like Scrooge, our instinct is to dodge, duck, dive, and deflect responsibility away from ourselves and towards the broader system, the “system” meaning everyone except us.
The beauty of Dickens’ masterpiece isn’t through the display of Scrooge as some miserly outcast, but in his use of Scrooge as a mirror, showing us who we really are.
Similar to Scrooge, I was fortunate enough to have a moment of clarity a few weeks ago - the first I had in a long time. It was in the middle of the week in the midst of a busy, stressful day at work when I saw a video of the NBA player Klay Thompson spending time with a kid undergoing cancer treatment.
They shot hoops together, drove around Los Angeles, and hung out on the beach. It was a simple two minute video, yet by the end, I came to the happy realization that essentially none of the things I was thinking about that day actually mattered. The big presentation to prep for and the growing backlog of work tasks meant nothing when compared to the things that really mattered, those things being some combination of the Golden Rule, turning the other cheek, and feeling a shared connectivity with one another that made it all so much easier to give rather than to receive.
The sad thing about this sort of clarity is that it’s generally pretty temporary. I felt a sort of fuzzy warmth for the next day or two, but life went on just the same for the most part.
And maybe that’s my bone to pick with all these stories that end with these characters receiving some sort of enlightenment - the stories never cover the difficulties in sustaining that moment of clarity.
A few weeks after those nightmares, does Scrooge really not look at his shrinking bank account with a growing sense of worry? Does he really not consider cutting back his support for Tiny Tim’s family, once the vividness of Jacob Marley’s ghost fades away?
I’m still wondering how to revive and sustain that level of emotional clarity that I had a while ago. Part of it is perhaps through prayer and going to church. Reading great literature and empathizing with characters like Scrooge is another path too. It’s also possible that this sort of clarity is a muscle that just needs to be flexed, one that comes with practice through repeated acts of kindness.
Or maybe it’s just human nature to struggle to maintain a sustained sense of clarity. After the Buddha reached Enlightenment, people around India asked him if he was some sort of god or wise man. The Buddha simply responded, “I am awake.” Whether we like it or not, most of us are in the equivalent of a deep coma as we go through our day-to-day.
And maybe that’s the first step towards waking up to more moments of clarity - understanding that we’re asleep in the first place.
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