It’s a wonderful life, but not for Ebenezer Scrooge

With all the crises and stress in our family and in the world, we decided to spend a good part of Christmas day watching old Christmas movies.

First, we watched the 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring James Stewart, which I had not seen in decades. Then we watched the 1984 version of “A Christmas Carol,” which I had not seen before, starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, the grumpy misanthrope at the center of Charles Dickens classic 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol.

These two stories , though very different in setting and style, offered quite similar themes. Although they resonate with some deep human values, hopes, and fears, the moral of these films stands in stark contrast with the norms and beliefs of modern industrial-consumer life or economic culture.

Both central characters, Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey face crises of conscience in the context of capital crushing ordinary people as its agents wage financial war on hard-working folks. Scrooge, the money grubbing nineteenth century English businessman, treats everyone including his close relatives and employees as no more than commodities from which to profit.

The parallels between the two stories are striking. Young George Bailey sacrifices his dreams of world adventure to take over the management of small-town Bedford Falls’ only savings and loan, on which the small town’s people heavily depend. Old heartless Scrooge-like Mr. Potter, who controls the local bank and several other businesses and properties, has been trying to take over the S&L for years.

When it all falls apart, George Bailey blames himself, falls into depression and goes to the bridge and contemplates jumping into the raging waters on a cold winter night. A junior angel, in order to earn his wings, must convince George to regain his hope. He shows George what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born. It becomes “Potterville,” a corrupt town with lots of sleazy bars, nightclubs, other exploitive businesses, and poor folks, ruled by Mr. Potter. George Bailey then renews his moral determination, returns to reality, and saves the town, freeing the townsfolk from the oppression of Potter’s greed.

In “A Christmas Carol,” the moral of the story is told from the greedy businessman’s point of view. Late in his life of greed, oppressing others, and denial of any human values in favor of gaining a few more shillings, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, show him the error of his ways. Scrooge is transformed into a gracious caring and generous man who makes up for his evil past by reuniting with family, donating to charities, and anonymously giving a huge Christmas turkey to the family of the employee he had abused, then giving a raise to Bob Cratchet thereby saving his son, crippled Tiny Tim from an early demise.

These short summaries cannot do justice to the emotional and moral elements of these stories—that’s what stories are for. This “hopeful realist” took them as reflections of just how far the industrial revolution and its 200-year aftermath has taken us from the human values of family, community, and the mutual aid and support they once entailed. The callous indifference to causing risk to others expressed by the current “anti-mask” politics in the face of a global pandemic, which took my wife’s father on Christmas night, directly reflects that deep loss of human compassion.

Psychologists and philosophers such as Abraham Maslow and Eric Fromm and others have pointed to the critical difference between Having and Being as modes of living. Having is alienating and addictive. Being liberates the person by focusing on caring for oneself, others, and the world we live in. Being constitutes authentic life. As several recent studies have shown, the happiest people on Earth are those whose lives revolve around caring for others in harmony with their habitat.

We will not be able to salvage a livable world from the climate emergency and ecological disasters that industrial consumerism has wrought until we overcome the addictions to Having, which continue to override caring for our habitat and compassion for all life that are the essence of Being.

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