We are surrounded by spirit; the by-product of what goes on. Other people, events, relationships (past and present), experiences etc. Our lives are influenced by, touched by, and informed by, this kind of spirit. This might be thought of as the constant ‘presence of absences’.
The Spirit of Past, Present, and Future
I was blown away by an adaptation of A Christmas Carol that the BBC released over Christmas 2019. The power of spirit as a concept really struck me as I watched it. From our own spirit (the trail we leave around us), to the spirit of trauma (the legacy of negative events that might have happened to us), via the spirit of what has been, what is, and what might come to be.
This is not some abstract concept, but one that we can use to build better lives on.
Guy Pierce’s portrayal sees Scrooge as younger than other versions. And there is something altogether different. Rather than being a miser who gets a kick out of being a sadistic, cynical old grump, he comes across as emotionally detached and disconnected from himself and the world. Unwedded from humanity. Numb and unable to feel anything at all.
Spirit and Water
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” “ – David Foster Wallace
We all carry ghosts with us through our lives. They speak to us about who we are and what we’re capable of. They tell us things they think we should know about other people. And they warn us of things in order to try and keep us safe.
The Spirit Lives On
I think about the notion of spirit a lot. As an undertaker I feel confronted by it every day!
At one level, no one truly dies. Yes, their physical manifestation ceases to be. But their spirit lives on in different ways. The routines, words, values, lessons, memories, and example they leave behind in the lives of those around them.
This is the spirit of another person, where their presence continues, even in their absence. Like the memories we might recall when we encounter a certain smell, sound, or physical space. It occurs for lost lovers, old ways of life, and past experiences.
These spirits are not always helpful. There can be negative aspects to the ghosts we carry. We might carry critical words from the past – perhaps parents, siblings, teachers, or even strangers. Voices that enter our minds and fill them with self-doubt and anxiety.
These presences define our world views, our values, and our behaviour. But like the water in David Foster Wallace’s story, if we are unaware that they are there, we don’t know that we are swimming in them. They are simply true. As is our unconscious response to them.
The Spirit of Christmas Past
We need a Spirit of Christmas Past to be the old fish. To raise our awareness and soften our hearts to the walls we create around our perception of reality.
“What happened to me at this school excuses me. It explains me. And because it’s all been done in the past, nothing can be done to remedy it.” – Scrooge
“So you need more than a mincing knife and warm gravy to soften your heart. You only see what your father did to you, and not what your sister did for you. Let us go deeper.” – The Spirit of Christmas Past
Many of us experience a similar reaction to Scrooge. We stop right here. Having found a reason for dissatisfaction, it then turns into an excuse for how we are (and why we don’t need to change), and eventually this can come to define our whole life. We find a comfortable way to play the role of victim, and water this with self-pity and ‘ressentiment’.
‘Ressentiment’ is a spirit of hostility towards what we decide to identify as the cause of our frustration or pain. In other words, it is an object of blame for our negative feelings, against which we can rail and launch attacks. It is a defence mechanism which allows us to face up to a truth that lies beneath the surface. The ego creates an externalised enemy (scapegoat) to protect us from looking at our own wounds, felt inferiority or failure.
This ‘ressentiment’ is pitched against a manufactured enemy, NOT the source of the pain. For Scrooge, the hidden memories of his own horrific childhood trauma, is partially displayed in an obsession with penny pinching, a dehumanising of his employees, and a belief that people are by nature insincere and shallow. All at an unconscious level. The realisation that what happened to him excuses and explains him, is the first phase of healing. Certainly not the end.
Sometimes people go through this when becoming aware of what it means to be an introvert for the first time. It might dawn on them as a justification or excuse for certain actions (or inactions). Negating responsibility for how they act, placing it into the hands of something they can use to justify or excuse them. For example, I’ve heard people make the leap that says, ‘I’m an introvert therefore I am anti-social, therefore I will decline all invitations to social events’.
But awareness of anything is only as valuable as the thing we choose to do next because of it. And in the case of learning about introversion and high sensitivity, it is how we use our awareness to continue moving towards ‘becoming the best that we can be’.
Who Do We Scapegoat?
Maybe we lump ‘extroverts’ into one objectified group. Perhaps ‘foreigners’. Or ‘those on the right’. Wherever we dehumanise and scapegoat people, we might find a symptom for some kind of negative spirit at work. Turning outwards something which we dare not confront on the inside.
Understanding that the ‘deep pain’ had a source, was Scrooge’s first step towards release. By the end he comes to recognise that, although he cannot change the past (what happened to him and what he did to others), he can change himself. He doesn’t deserve forgiveness or redemption. In fact, he won’t accept it. He just wants Tiny Tim to be saved from what appears to be a certain fate; in a vision, Scrooge sees him die by drowning after falling through an icy lake on his sister’s skates.
This is his moment of breakthrough.
All we have is now. And with that, all we can change is the future. We can control how we show up in the world as we help shape what is yet to come. We get to influence the spirit that we leave for the world once we’re gone. The words we use, the example we set, the way we react, the values we carry, the love we spread, and the compassion we express.
That’s pretty cool.
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