“They Are Man’s” – Reflections on “A Christmas Carol”

mhagandefaultMichael Hagan ’15

Over the last several years, I have made it a point to annually reread Charles Dickens’ iconic novella, A Christmas Carol. Dickens tells his profound story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion of heart through deliberately light and fast-paced prose, which makes A Christmas Carol digestible, relatable, and applicable for readers of every age.

A rereading of A Christmas Carol always offers a new insight, realization, or lesson (which is a large part of why this has become an annual practice for me). In my latest reread, a particular line stuck out to me. It shook my perception of the Cratchit family that I admire so much. During Scrooge’s secret visit to the Cratchit home accompanied by the Ghost of Christmas Present and in the midst of the family’s wholesome and joyful celebrations (despite its modesty), Dickens makes it a point to acknowledge that Bob’s son, young Peter Cratchit, “might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s.” Now, it was not uncommon for families in Victorian England to pawn their heirlooms and other possessions in order to put bread on the table and make ends meet. But if this is the kind of pawning Dickens means, why would Bob Cratchit’s adolescent son be the pawner? This easily overlooked line seems to imply that Peter Cratchit dabbles in the kind of trade described in Scrooge’s visit to Old Joe’s Beedling Shop with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. A young male thief certainly has a place in the Dickensian canon, but does he have a place under Bob Cratchit’s roof? Is his presence a stain on this virtuous, impoverished family?

Pondering the role of Peter has led me to view the Cratchits in far more realistic terms than I ever had. While Bob Cratchit is certainly a moral standard bearer in the story, conditions could still compel he and his family to resort to desperate measures. Indeed, for Peter, they may already have. After they visit the Cratchits’ and Scrooge’s nephew’s Christmas gatherings, the Spirit reveals to Scrooge two “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” children. They are ignorance and want, and “they are man’s.” Scrooge is warned to fear these two scourges that he is in part father too. Ignorance and want are menacing yet pitiful. When Peter Cratchit transgresses the law, to what extent is Scrooge responsible for the conditions that compel him to do so? Might the boy be a thief and thus something of a threat? Perhaps. Should we pity him? Undoubtedly. Everyone needs mercy. We get to know and understand Peter and his family through our reading, and as a result are less inclined to judge him. Do we look with this same compassionate understanding on the many Peter Cratchits in the world today?

Dickens challenges us with the character of Peter Cratchit to apply the same renewed charity of the reborn Ebenezer Scrooge in two important ways. He challenges us to see the poor (children especially) with compassion and mercy rather than judgment and fear, and he challenges us as individuals and as a society to assess the ways in which we intensify ignorance and want. What “frightful, hideous, miserable” monsters do we stir within others and ourselves? To what extent do ignorance and want consume us? Christmas, in this context, is a celebration of shedding chains, turning away from our golden idols, and standing arm in arm with fellow man. It is worth singing about and raising a glass or two for. The happiness it brings is “quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

I always say that A Christmas Carol is the second greatest among Christmas stories. Despite Dickens’ likely secular worldview, A Christmas Carol wonderfully reflects the Christmas story. Both are stories of deliverance, renewal, solidarity, and reconciliation. There are times when we are all like Ebenezer Scrooge at closing time on Christmas Eve. But at Christmastime and all year round, we ought to aspire to be more like Bob Cratchit at his humble Christmas dinner and the renewed Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning.

I wish you all a very merry Christmas. “God bless us, every one!”

Forgive Us, Newtown

mhagandefaultMichael Hagan ’15

Friday morning, I was refilling my coffee at Ray when a disturbing tweet appeared in my timeline:

“@WTOP: Conn. school shooting was reported at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown”

As I walked to my exam in Harkins, I read this:

“@WTOP: UPDATE: Dispatcher says teacher shot in the foot in Newtown, Conn. Unclear if only injury in reported school shooting”

I wrongly interpreted this update to indicate that the situation was under control and that authorities were assessing the scene of the crime. Disturbed, though slightly relieved by my wrong interpretation, I powered down my phone and began my exam. It took me about an hour and twenty minutes to answer objective questions about Catholic social ethics and to write an essay about the Christian understanding of what it means to be fully human, and immediately after handing Fr. Al my blue book, I turned on my phone to learn more details about the crisis I thought was over. I read an hours’ worth of updates as quickly as I could. The most recent reports confirmed that at least one student had died and that others were injured. As soon as I felt like I had a grip on the developing crisis, the most disturbing, heart-breaking, and terrifying words I had ever read appeared on my phone screen. Never could I have imagined the news in the palm of my hand:

“@WTOP: UPDATE: CBS News quotes officials as saying 27 people are dead, more than a dozen children, in Connecticut”

I grew tense and shivered despite the warmth of the Slavin Lounge I had just entered. A landslide of images flooded my mind. My focus was fixated on the many children in my life- my ten year-old sister, younger members of my extended family, and the elementary school students I volunteer with through children’s ministry. In my heart, it was as though they themselves were students at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Even as I write, I can’t tell what principally stirs this emotion: genuine empathy for the devastated people of Newtown, or fearful understanding of the truth that this could just as easily have happened in my sister’s classroom at Damascus Elementary School.

I spent much of the day unable to move away from the television. I watched with friends as the tragedy continued to unfold. Our hearts broke as we heard about the moment many parents realized their children had not walked out of the school. There were and are tears; there was and is anger. I confess another emotion, though, and I sincerely believe that if you look deeply enough into yourself, you will find it as well. I feel guilt. I feel the guilt that we share as a nation for breeding violence and failing to strike it at its roots. We share guilt for our policies on mental health and gun-violence prevention. We share guilt for building and perpetuating a culture that glorifies weapons and makes light of violence. We share guilt for neglecting and alienating groups and individuals, and for failing to identify the often glaring though sometimes illusive red-flags of insidious intentions.

We are guilty of allowing delusional self-proclaimed cowboys to hold gun laws hostage, and of remaining silent while the loudest voices on such matters belong to gunpowder-high ideologues who dupe themselves into thinking that concealed firearms on every citizen’s side will actually save the world. I saved a letter to the editor from one of last semester’s circulations of “The Cowl” in which a Providence College alumnus dared to lay blame on the victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre for not carrying concealed weapons to class. This is the kind of insanity that we’ve let overrun our nation.

Our sin (principally of omission) has been easy to overlook- the scourge of gun violence takes its toll primarily in more crowded and disadvantaged settings than a ranch retreat in the American southwest or a pristine lawn on a northeastern college campus. But the violence we breed is coming back for us. It’s creeping into places where we least expect it. It is coming to our schools. It is coming to our malls. It is coming to our places of worship. It is coming to our movie theaters. Yesterday, it came for the most vulnerable among us, and took twenty children- all seven years old or younger. The culture of violence is growing worse. The gun-culture is gaining ground. The consequences are real.

I stayed glued to the news for most of the day until 4:30 Mass, which was offered for the victims and others involved in and affected by the massacre. At Mass and in prayer since, I hold up, first and foremost, the victims and their families. I thank God for the heroism of Sandy Hook faculty members in particular, who had nothing more than their bodies to put between their students and a gun. Their witness inspires me and only strengthens my aspiration to be an educator myself. I do pray for the gunman, and ask not so much “why” in the immediate sense, but rather “what;” what conditions, course of events, or forces natural or supernatural in his life drove him into that school with murderous intent? I pray for victims of violence everywhere, whose stories we really rarely hear. All of this leads me to pray for action. We need change in policy, culture, and relationships. We need to take responsibility for the monsters that we create, and take individual as well as public initiative to prevent future tragedy.

There are a number of arenas in which the campaign to end this brand of senseless violence must be fought, and they will be explored in more depth in future FriarSideChats. Until then, though, may we keep Newtown in our thoughts and prayers, and may we take overdue action to deliver our nation from heartbreaking and presently imminent future tragedy. We must eliminate the term “random” from our description of “acts of violence,” and overcome the powerful forces working to prevent an honest conversation about the causes of gun violence in this country. I will not wait to have to bury a sister, a parent, or a close friend before I speak up. Forgive us, Newtown, for our failure to address this matter head-on in the past, and thus for idly standing by as part of the problem.

Fiscal Cliff: Education is the Answer

A Guest Chat by Sean Aherne ’14

The country is currently in a clear financial crisis, which is greatly impacted by the current economic conditions in the country.  Now we confront the “Fiscal Cliff”, the product of a suicide pact made by Republicans and Democrats in the summer of 2011, which would result in steep increases to tax rates and spending cuts. This combination of increases of taxes and reduced spending would devastate a still fragile economy. It is important that partisanship be put aside during the  “Fiscal Cliff” discussions. That is not to say that either party should abandon its core principles. Instead both parties must work together to find compromise. No matter what deal is reached in the coming weeks, the most important objective of the country as a whole will be to grow the economy both in the short term and the long term. Often our government seeks instant gratification by spending money on costly projects or irresponsible tax cuts. This desire for instant gratification in the pursuit of job creation and financial security leads both parties to seek small, ineffective, and usually costly ideological political victories.

Bipartisanship has been considered taboo in Washington for far too long. There needs to be responsible cuts to entitlement and military budgets coupled with an increase in revenue through the closing of tax loop holes and increasing of taxes modestly on the top half of the top tax bracket on a conditional basis relative to the national deficit. The tax increases should remain in place until the deficit becomes a lower percentage of the United States Gross Domestic Product. As to budget cuts, Defense Secretary Leon Penetta, a man renowned for his budget cutting ability, made a public plea to Congress for a more careful approach to cutting the military budget. According to a White House report released in September, if the nation goes off the “Fiscal Cliff,” the Army would lose $7 billion and the Navy would take a $4 billion hit next year alone.  The New York Times has reported that “under the terms of last year’s budget act, veterans’ programs were exempted from the cuts. Mr. Obama used the latitude granted by the law to also shield military personnel.” However, this much needed protection of our soldiers both present and past resulted in more extensive cuts to the remaining military budgets.

The government must not only find a fair and equitable solution to the “Fiscal Cliff,” but also invest in future ways of preventing this scenario from reoccurring. Education is the answer. We as a society both publicly and privately must make a greater investment in our collective future as a nation through the support of education. Republican Abraham Lincoln once said, “You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could do for themselves.” The long term solution to our country’s recurring deficit problem is an improved education system and job retraining programs. As well as stronger assimilation programs for soldiers returning from abroad and a hybrid private sector and public sector job finding program. According to a CNN report there are currently 3.5 million unfilled jobs. Some may consider the conservatives’ argument that at a time when the nation’s deficit has never been greater we cannot afford recklessly spending on massive stimulus packages. They are correct in their assertions and their beliefs about reckless spending. However, what this country really needs is a focused effort to improve the education level of our youth in areas of importance to our re-surging economy and to retrain skilled workers whose industries are shedding jobs so that our economy’s growth is maximized. The 2012 Global Innovation Index ranked the United States thirty-first in K-12 education. The internationally respected index cited the United States low level of expenditures compared to other first world countries. Education is the key to the future of our nation and the answer to our debt crisis in the long run.

Sean Aherne is a Junior political science major, and business studies, history, and public administration minor.