In late 1843, Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” as a holiday novel, expressly designed to make him some quick money. At the time, Dickens’ latest novel was a bomb; he owed money to his publisher and he really needed the dinero. He financed the book’s publication himself, pricing it at 5 shillings to make it affordable to the masses (talk about using self-publishing as a branding strategy!)
Dickens’ gut instinct was right: “A Christmas Carol” made him a lot of money. But something else happened along the way—the story of Ebenezer Scrooge became one of the most enduring pieces of literature in the English language, with characters that have been absorbed into the human vernacular and psyche.
We may not be trotting around Victorian London in waistcoat and muffler, but Dickens’ core message in “A Christmas Carol” still resonates today: Life is transient. We can either live it parsimoniously, with our noses pressed against the bottom line, or we can allow ourselves to be happy.
I’ve read and written a lot of words in my career, but the only thing I have in common with Charles Dickens is that we both needed the dinero. Dickens had deadlines like the rest of us—he managed to crank out “A Christmas Carol” in six weeks to get his book on the shelves in time for the holiday—but he didn’t have to worry about satisfying page views, bounce rates or ensuring that his prose fit into the algorithms of Google’s search engine.
These present-day realities mean we don’t have a lot of time to ponder the bigger things in life. We’re too busy struggling to keep from drowning in the never-ending torrent of words, images and digital information from an endless array of devices. In a desperate effort to be heard, we shoot from the hip, trying to connect on the fly, wherever and whenever we have the chance.
Lurking behind all of the distractions is that nagging, inconvenient little fact: Life is transient. And once it’s over, we really don’t leave anything permanent behind. Dickens illustrates this in the chilling scene where the rag-and-bone pickers barely wait for Scrooge’s body to cool before fighting over his bedclothes and curtains. If you’ve ever had to sift through a loved one’s belongings after his or her death, you realize just how paltry all of those hard-earned earthly goods are once their owner is gone.
A few, like Dickens, will endure. Art, whether created by design or a convergence of necessity and luck, can sometimes ignite something that’s distinctly human in all of us.
We all want to be remembered after we die. And of course, we will be—by family, friends and the people whose lives we’ve touched. But even the most beloved or successful of us will be, in a generation or two, a name on a granite stone—or a trail of inane comments, selfies, memes and non sequiturs scattered across cyberspace.
I think we can do better than that.
Think about what you want to do to connect yourself to the rest of the human race. Turn off the electronic yammering, the social media schadenfreude, and the here-today, gone-tomorrow blips on the cultural radar. Think deep thoughts on the eternal human condition and put them down on paper, canvas or film. The products of your creative expression could just end up as part of the waste that’s left behind when you go, but who knows? Maybe you’ll actually capture something so real that it will go on living even after you’re gone.
This is my last column for National Underwriter P&C. Thanks so much for helping to make it a great ride.