Dickens, Frank McCourt and Compassion
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
In Sally Ledger’s Introduction to Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Books, she writes, “Redemption through suffering is a significant Christian trope” in A Christmas Carol. Having just reread A Christmas Carol (as a palate-cleanser after reading Skipping Christmas), I would argue that compassion is the redemptive power in the story. Suffering hardens Scrooge’s heart, so that he turns away from the human family from which he’s been excluded as a child.
Pema Chödrön writes of a childhood experience that became an “essential bodhichitta teaching from an old woman sitting in the sun. I was walking by her house one day feeling lonely, unloved and mad, kicking anything I could find. Laughing, she said to me, ‘Little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.’”
Scrooge receives his own version of this instruction in the first chapter of A Christmas Carol. His cheerful nephew visits on Christmas Eve with an invitation to Christmas dinner. Of course Scrooge is gruff and unkind in return: “Scrooge said that he would see him - yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.” But the nephew seems to know Pema Chodron’s bodhichitta teaching: “we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us.”
Scrooge’s nephew responds with kindness and openness, “I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I’ll keep my Christmas humour to the last. So A Merry Christmas, uncle!’”
And that gift of open-hearted regard opens the door to the next completely unmerited act of compassion, the spiritual intercession by Scrooge’s seven-years’ dead partner Jacob Marley.
Reading Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes feels almost like reading a Dickens book with a cast of characters that range from ridiculous, noble, cruel, defeated and miserable. But unlike a Dickens book, in Angela's Ashes our protagonist is not an airbrushed innocent - we don’t find David Copperfield preoccupied with wanking. And for Frank McCourt there are no rescuers. No Mr. Jarndyce or Betsey Trotwood draw Frank into a safe haven.
And certainly McCourt refutes the idea of redemption through suffering. The church recommends poverty as purifying, but as a telegram delivery boy Frank witnesses the miserable reality of human suffering:
“... when you knock on a door and someone says come in and you go in and there’s no light and there’s a pile of rags on a bed in a corner the pile saying who is it and you say telegram and the pile of rags tells you would you ever go to the shop for me I’m starving with the hunger and I’d give me two eyes for a cup of tea and what are you going to do say I’m busy and ride off on your bike and leave the pile of rags there with a telegram money order that’s pure useless because the pile of rags is helpless to get out of the bed to go to the post office to cash the bloody money order. What are you supposed to do?”
This old woman dressed in rags offers her own bodhichitta teaching. And while her suffering isn’t redeeming, Frank’s compassion is. He hasn’t let life harden his heart.