Sunday, December 08, 2013

“I wear the chain I forged in life”

Alec Guinness as my favorite ghost.

Of all the Christmas stories I like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol the best. And of the characters in the story, my favorite is one who doesn’t take up much room. It is Marley’s ghost, laden down with chains and cashboxes. Marley is a bellwether for Scrooge, to warn him of the need for changes in his miserly life, and the upcoming visits of three other ghosts.
“I wear the chain I forged in life,'' replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”
The chain is a good metaphor for those things we have done that weigh us down. Unless you have no conscience you probably have mistakes or crimes or cruelties that are still with you, maybe even decades after they happened. I do. (Note to law enforcement: any “crimes” I committed were strictly misdemeanors, for which the statutes of limitations have long since passed. Just thought I’d make that clear.)

What bothers me most are things I said to people I wish I had never said. In a moment of anger I spouted off and said something unkind. It happened fairly regularly, so regularly that in the mid-seventies my job supervisor told me I had a “tongue that cuts like a scalpel.” It was him telling me that made me think of what I was doing. And dammit, I am still thinking of it. I’d say that my scalpel tongue has probably earned me about ten feet of heavy battleship chain by now.

I won’t go into any more of my transgressions because, frankly, they would be boring to you and yet for me, even after forty or fifty years they are still hard to speak of. They would be good for telling to a therapist, though, and some of them I have unburdened to the two therapists I consulted since the mid-nineties. Telling them lightened my chain by at least a couple of pounds.

I don’t believe in sin as a religious concept. There are things we do that are right to do because they do not intrude on or damage our fellow human beings, or make them suffer. There are things we should not do, not because we fear eternal punishment, but because they are the price of living in harmony in civilization.

In that sense I don’t believe in Marley’s ghost except as a literary construction, but a powerful construction it is. That image of Marley and his chains is a visual aid for me to help me decide with how much I want to burden myself, not in some hereafter, but in the here-and-now.

Illustration by Roberto Innocenti.

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