In Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future -- ghosts revealing to him what once was, what now is, and what will soon be. As a result of his encounters with these yuletide apparitions, Ebeneezer turns from his miserly ways and determines to live life differently from that day forward.
At this time of year, as much as I enjoy Dickens and the numerous TV and film adaptations of his short story (kinda prefer the George C. Scott version), my preferred holiday haunting comes not from the ghosts of past, present or future, but from the angel Clarence, from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, or as I consider him, the Ghost of Christmas Pluperfect Subjunctive.
Clarence gives the movie’s protagonist, George (who is having a very, very bad day), a “great gift”: an imaginative exercise in the pluperfect tense (past completed action), subjunctive mood (contingency or hypothesis). George gets to see what the world would have been like if he had not been born.
Deb and I love this movie, but we haven’t seen it in a few years because the kids are often around when we watch something on the tube, and we don’t want them to see it just yet. We think you need a little more wear on life’s tires before you can really appreciate Capra’s message. You have to have lived awhile with some precious dreams, and some dreams deferred. You have to have seen some tragedy up close, and some tragedy averted. You have to have stood up for what’s right when it cost you something. You have to know the love of family, and of loyal friends. You have to have had some very, very bad days.
The kids aren’t there yet.
But we are.
I think it’s fitting, especially during this season of reflection, to spend some time following George’s path of wonder. I don’t usually go so far as to consider the state of my hometown in my absence (let alone a broader world -- I can’t imagine things would be much different), but simply to consider my own life and the choices I’ve made, and to imagine my life:
- if I had joined choir instead of orchestra in junior high
- if I had been a better friend to Craig in college
- if I had continued working in advertising instead of going to seminary
- if I had let someone else teach my kids to read
- if I had studied Latin in high school (sigh)
- if I had prayed more each day
- if I had prayed less each day
A small choice here, a tweak there, and the trajectory of one’s life changes altogether. I can imagine an alternate universe – one in some ways perhaps better than the one I’m in now, and in other ways quite a bit worse.
The exercise is tinged with some regret, but as I look at the particular path I’ve walked these 40-odd years, with its adventures and accomplishments, its sorrows and celebrations, I mostly agree with Clarence: it’s a wonderful life.