I sat in the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis last week, self-consciously wiping the tears off my face. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 1951 version with Alistair Sim or the 1992 Muppet version or a live version on stage, A Christmas Carol always has me sniffling by the time the third spirit arrives. I know what is coming. The break of day and redemption.
This idea of redemption, not in an afterlife or by last minute acts of desperation, but in the present, is such a beautiful, gut-wrenching concept to me. And I don’t think a supernatural fright is necessary to experience it.
Most of us have not committed egregious, prosecutable crimes. For those who have, I leave it to their victims to offer redemption. Most of us are petty criminals – innocuous in our envy, silently savoring our pride or our appearance, holding petty grudges or being snarky. I do something nearly daily that in hindsight I am embarrassed or ashamed about, whether it be an act or a thought. The nature of being human means that some of our layers aren’t things we’d want others to witness.
Perhaps, too, the redemption I learned about in church is something too ephemeral and distant to mean much. So often it seems that people use religious concepts of redemption as a way of excusing behavior they’ve made no attempt to modify or for which they feel no remorse. Real redemption lies in making amends and then making different choices. It requires that introspection which differentiates us as humans – our willingness to recognize our flaws and our ability to learn to do things differently, to be different.
As a writer, this has always been something that niggles at my little gray cells. I like happy endings in stories. I like it when characters make different choices that lead them on an upward trajectory. I like to believe the most seemingly irredeemable humans find their way into the light. This is why I’ve not enjoyed the latest trend of fictional protagonists as antiheroes – those who are repugnant in their choices and never find a redemptive path. I don’t see the point of elucidating these characters if they are going to continue making the same kinds of choices with inevitably worsening consequences.
Culturally, the antihero seems to dominate public attention. Heroes and heroines are eventually tarnished. Moral rectitude is replaced by expediency and attention-seeking stunts. The myths of goodness in the public sphere are like bad alibis – easy to poke holes in, unable to withstand scrutiny. True heroes and heroines are going about their work, sometimes unregarded and unnoticed, but staying the course. And every day, they are still learning and seeking redemption by choosing in those singular moments to be better than what they might otherwise be.
This is the true beauty of redemption – each moment is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to scrutinize the uglier bits of our personalities and decide to be better. It’s a chance to look at whatever prejudicial beliefs that have permeated our cells and decide to be smarter. It’s a chance to be a better friend or parent or student or employee. It’s an opportunity to say sorry and mean it. Each day, we are presented with small choices and interactions in which we can redeem ourselves. We can be just a little bit better than what our nature dictates. I think that is a miracle unto itself – no spirits required.
“Many laughed to see this alteration in him, but he let them laugh and little heeded them, for he knew that no good thing in this world ever happened, at which some did not have their fill of laughter. His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him. And it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843
May your 2015 be filled with redemptive moments and joy – keep it well!
Currently trying to redeem my brain cells with these books:
On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson
The Moral Imagination by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry