It was a lazy week in the sleepy suburbs of a West African capital, and I was bored, attending as I had been a conference on something or something else. The lulling drones of the presenters hyphenated by breaks – Africans do love their breaks, after all. Coffee and lunch and snack; networking over piles of buffet rice and plantains. But I have never been very social – and wandering through the decaying lobby of the bedraggled hotel I stumbled upon a bookshelf with the odd assortment of books you are wont to find on bookshelves in dilapidated hotels in the third world. I started thumbing through them until I ran into Dickens. Specifically, a Christmas Carol. Now, I like Dickens, so I picked up the little book; realizing as I did in a flash of embarrassment that I had never actually read that story. Oh, I knew it of course by heart – it has been retold so often, the epicenter of our Christmas traditions – how could I not? I sat down, sun pouring through dust I had kicked up as I began to turn the pages.
Yes, I like Dickens, as I like many Victorian British novelists. I guess I was curious to see if the movies had stayed true to the little novel. I guess I wanted to say that I, to, had read it. But as I began to get engaged in the story, my motivation changed and I read because I wanted to read it. That’s what a good book does – so many books, especially classics, we read because we know we should – because we who are authors know it will improve out craft – because we believe that through the old books that are still read long after their creators are gone is transmitted wisdom we need in a world of frivolity and foolishness. This I expected; but to be entrapped in story, that was a pleasant surprise.
You all know the plot, so I won’t bother going over it. But I will tell you what it means; which is not what most people think it means. It is not a tale of money, nor is it really a story of greed. Perhaps that is because greed is not what people want us to believe it is; in fact, the word greed has become so charged that any debate regarding it is immediately poisoned. “Scrooge was selfish,” people say. “He was greedy,” they go on, “because he loved money more than people; and we all know that money is evil.” Oh, I’m not defending greed. I’m defending money.
“Money is evil,” everybody says all the time, the perfect excuse for those of a certain political persuasion to nab some of yours to do with as they think you should, but almost never do themselves. But is it? Money is, after all, very simply a tool – a store of value and a unit of measure. Ayn Rand writes (yes, I’m getting immense mirth at quoting her here, sure as I am that you believe her to be Scrooge incarnate), “Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value.” We don’t know what Scrooge did to get rich, but he didn’t steal his wealth so obviously he was offering somebody value, and was therefore rewarded.
So why the story? Why was Scrooge so unhappy; and why has that despondency led him to become the poster-child for the evil of wealth? Charles Dickens calls him a miser. According to Dictionary.com a miser is, “…a person who lives in wretched circumstances in order to save and hoard money.” Therein lies Scrooge’s problem – not that he had the money; but that in its frenetic accumulation he ‘lost the plot’, making himself miserable (the root of that very word being ‘miser’). He forgot that money was a tool to facilitate obtaining voluntarily that which he valued. No, the money did not make him miserable; it was his miserliness that did not allow him to employ his money in the pursuit of the things which had value for him; family, charity, respect, stature – happiness. That is what this story is about. It is a story about value.
So let me ask you, dear reader – what is it that you value? And do you pursue it? Or are you instead miserly, with your time, your attention, your discipline, your love, your poverty and – yes – even your money? That is the lesson of Mr. Dickens’ short Christmas story.