If you are interested in meditation or have studied Buddhism, you may know the concept of “not self”, but I bet you’ve never considered what that has to do with Ebenezer Scrooge. Of course you haven’t, but bear with me because they are connected and there’s a holiday lesson in it for you. “Not self” or anatta as it is called in Pali is an intractable idea to understand and, at first, can even be disturbing. The idea generally posits that there is no permanent, lasting self. So when you first hear or read about it, you may react “wait, is this saying I don’t exist?” and start to spiral in doubt like Descartes.
But, with practice, you see the concept isn’t so scary. I remember on one of my first retreats thinking to myself how the experience of being on a retreat—where I was discouraged from talking or engaging with others—was a chance to put my identity down for a while. A little while later, I noticed that I could do the same thing—even if for only a few minutes—any time I meditated. And then, with a bit more practice, I saw the real truth: I could put my identity—or the story surrounding it—down any time I was sufficiently aware and made the choice.
In truth, I always had the ability to see a story created by my reaction to a life event and wiggle my way out of it. It’s just that, most of the time, things moved too fast (or I moved too fast) to see it. On those occasions where I saw it and chose how to respond instead of merely reacting, it felt like magic. So the concept of “not self” when we start to experience it, is actually not as scary as it sounds. Instead, it can be extremely liberating and empowering. And this is what brings us to Scrooge.
I’ve never been the biggest Dickens fan, but I have a soft spot in my heart for A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ stock characters can make you cringe and his love of describing scenes can be overbearing. But Scrooge has been special to me for the last few years because I feel like I am one or at least was one. No, I’ve never proclaimed “Are there no workhouses?” (except ironically) and I’ve historically supported nonprofits, rather than hold onto my gold like a dragon in a cave.
But I had my own bad habits that I let calcify into an identity and one that was not very happy. Early in my law practice and as I was starting my family, I was plagued by overthinking and doubt. I wasn’t sure I could make it as an attorney. I wasn’t sure of my ability to network and make friends. For a few years, I basically hid out. I billed my hours and focused on myself and didn’t engage as much with the world as I really wanted to. I didn’t hoard my money from the world, but I hoarded my heart and personality and talents because I didn’t believe in them all the way and didn’t trust the world to accept me.
Amazingly, I was visited by some ghosts in the form of a difficult pregnancy, post-partum depression, the anxiety of never moving my career forward, and crippling loneliness. Those challenges forced me to learn to take care of myself, be compassionate with myself and others, and examine how I was living my life. When I did that, I changed what I did. Rather than withdraw, I started showing up, figuratively and literally. I joined (and even led) some organizations. I showed up to events. I reached out to old friends and invited new ones on adventures. I followed the things I thought were fun and learned to do things just because I enjoyed them. All of this happened after I started a meditation practice which helped me to become aware of my thoughts and learn which ones to follow and which ones to let go.
As this was happening, I heard someone mention A Christmas Carol at a business event and the idea took root in my mind. I bought the audiobook at Thanksgiving that year and have made it my personal tradition to listen to it every year to prepare for the holidays. Each year I listen, I notice something new. But this year, I listened and immediately thought “Oh, this is a great example of ‘not self.’”
And it is. What else could show us better that there is no permanent self than a story about a man who was dead inside one day, but brimming with life the next? How else are we to reconcile the potential for a man to ignore the needs of his assistant, Bob Cratchet, and buy him the prize turkey the very next day? We tell ourselves “people don’t change” and that may often be true. But stories like A Christmas Carol say they can. And so do stories like mine and I know I am not alone.
Of course, we all know the reality that people don’t change easily, but the fact that we can is a miracle. Our identities can sometimes feel solid and make us feel powerless and stuck. But we can examine our past and bring in compassion. We can explore the impact of our actions in the present and face the hard truths of where we are going wrong. And we can consider the paths that our present behavior may be leading us to in the future. When we do those things, we can get off the train tracks of identity and take the road less traveled to choose our steps more wisely.
We often think of A Christmas Carol as a man learning not to think about himself so much, but that only captures a part of the magic in that story. Yes, Scrooge did indeed become less selfish, but he did it only after he became more self-aware. When Scrooge finally started (with prompting from the ghosts) to think about himself, and to examine all of his self’s permutations over time with clarity and compassion, he was finally able to break out of the mold of identity. He was no longer a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner”. He was no longer as dead inside as Jacob Marley. He was alive and ready to walk among the living again because, through exploration, he saw that his conception of the self was an illusion and he could just start living a different life—one that was not full of thin gruel, perpetual cold, solitude, and “Bah! Humbug!” And I can tell you from experience that when you see this in your own life, you will definitely feel “as merry as a school boy” and as “giddy as a drunken man.”
So as we go about looking for holiday miracles, it’s always great to think of ways to be less selfish and more focused on others. But don’t neglect the other piece of the puzzle. Routines turn quickly into habits. Habits turn over time into identities. And identities—these selves we make in our mind—can sometimes block us off from the good and prevent us from doing good out in the world. So don’t just ignore your “self” at the holidays, explore it a little too. Reflect with compassion on who you’ve been, who you are, and where you’re going and don’t ignore those demons who may be there to prompt you along. By seeing the limits of the “self”, the boundaries between you and the rest of the world may start to fade away and your spirit can reemerge. And that would be a holiday miracle indeed.