As we near the Christmas holiday, two stories always emerge as the mainstays of the season,
A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Why? Why are those two stories able to stand the test of time? What are the themes within these works that continue to grip the hearts of each new generation?
In a Christmas Carol, we find the themes of greed, isolation, blame, guilt, shame, compassion, and forgiveness, and the start of something more, reconciliation and atonement.
In “It’s a Wonderful life”, the heart of humanity is explored along with the questions society grapples with daily. What is true sacrifice? Is loyalty real if there is expected return? Why do I feel so dissatisfied? This particular story leans heavily on the themes of perspective and expectations. And contentment.
Both stories are redemption stories, stories that inspire us to be better people.
Christmas itself is considered by many to be a redemption story in that it celebrates the birth of a Redeemer, one whose sacrifice allows us to atone for our failings.
The desire for redemption is what allows humanity to start over when it is destructive, it’s what drives us towards progress, it is the soil that nurtures even the smallest seed of hope.
End of life regrets
The questions posed and discussed in these well known works are ones we see mirrored in our governments as well as society they are bound to serve. And none of us, even the wealthiest and most powerful are immune from the quiet moments of reflection when we have only ourselves and the choices defining the life we have lived as our companions. Many times, in those moments, especially the final ones, we find ourselves almost drowning in regret. Many a politician or person in power, albeit seen as a hero or a villain, have reflected on these regrets:
Lee Atwater, political strategist and republican strategist was many different things to different people. He was described as “brilliant” “A dear friend” and also “sinister”, “racist” and “cruel”. People are complicated and it’s likely a bit of everything would apply, as it usually does. There is no doubt that Atwater is one of the architects of some of the worst of the Republican party-the “Southern Strategy” that gave white supremacists a home within the GOP, and a delight of dirty politics that has shifted rhetoric ever since. But at 39, Atwater was diagnosed with an incredibly aggressive brain tumor and died at 40. Before his death, he spoke out often about his political regrets. It was clear he was still proud of his success in who he helped get into office, but he was ashamed of how he did it.
Nearing his death, these words reflected the shift of his heart and mind:
“My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The ’80s were about acquiring — acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn’t I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us through the ’90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul….I was wrong to follow the meanness of Conservatism. I should have been trying to help people instead of taking advantage of them. I don’t hate anyone anymore. For the first time in my life I don’t hate somebody. I have nothing but good feelings toward people.”
Malcolm X, hero to many, and to some, a provocateur who separated the races more than he united them:
Although he did not know his days were about to be stolen from him,at the time of his death, Malcolm was undergoing more life transition. He had rejected the coarse version of black racial separatism he had previously assumed.. He repudiated the concept that non-whites stood on a natural spiritual high ground. He also rejected such ideas as black Americans founding their own country within the confines of the American Northwest. At this point in his life, Malcolm expressed regrets of all kinds and in a speech shortly before his death said that Dr. King was right and attempted to unite with him in a show of brotherhood. This is not to say that Malcom X did not still maintain a fighting attitude towards injustice, but that he did express regret from some of the more militant positions he held and the further divisions they caused.
Recently, the death of Senator John Mccain made headlines Many speak of him as a hero, but some label him as traitor and warmonger. . Because he knew his time left on the earth was short, Mccain made the most of his time by openly expressing his regrets and encouraging us all to work towards better government. In his final book, Mccain discussed his biggest political regrets, not speaking out against confederate flag flying, involvement in the Keating Five scandal, not picking Lieberman as his running mate during his Presidential bid, For not speaking out more often and more clearly for pro-trade and pro-immigration stances, and for not speaking out more in support of the media. Mccain even made another shocking admission in his memoir about the Iraq war. He wrote “ It can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”
Ted Kennedy is a champion for liberals and an easy target for the ire of conservatives who quickly brand him “alcoholic”, “womanizer” and “murderer”.
Yet, in his final memoir, the Senator dedicated five pages to voicing his regret over the event that defined him to the right. Kennedy said his actions on Chappaquiddick on July 18, 1969, were “inexcusable.” He said he was afraid and “made terrible decisions” and had to live with the guilt for more than four decades. He regretted excessive drinking and bad behavior with women, and not being forthcoming on the infamous rape charges involving his nephew William Smith, and purposely derailing Jimmy Carter’s bid on universal healthcare.
Billy Graham:-Reflecting on his friendships with several of America’s presidents, Graham acknowledged the nearly insatiable pull of partisan politics. Although he didn’t regret ministering to leaders of both political parties, he expressed remorse for allowing himself to be drawn too close to President Richard Nixon, who was later caught up in the Watergate scandal and resigned.“Looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now,” Graham said in 2011.Although widely credited for his commitment to integrating the largely segregated Christian church in the South in the 1960s, Graham told The Associated Press in 2005 that he regretted not participating in civil rights marches with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.“I think I made a mistake when I didn’t go to Selma,”Graham said. “I would like to have done more.”
Robert Byrd is another example. He was a member of the KKK. Voted against the Civil Rights Act and as he grew older, openly regretted it. He owned who he had been, what he had done and changed. “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side. … Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”
Later in life, when discussing Mr. Luther King, he said “With the passage of time, we have come to learn that his Dream was the American Dream, and few ever expressed it more eloquently.” Upon news of his death, the NAACP released a statement praising Byrd, saying that he “became a champion for civil rights and liberties” and “came to consistently support the NAACP civil rights agenda”. About his time in the KKK he said “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times … and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again. I can’t erase what happened … it has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one’s life, career, and reputation.”
Authentic apologies can be healing, and science backs this up-but science also tells us that apologies can create even more angst in the in one who was hurt and can inspire an even greater thirst for justice or revenge. Greater healing comes from apologies that are backed up with repentant behavior, a literal turning from the wrongdoing towards active pursuit of the right thing.
One example of someone who owned their behavior and turned from it was Britain’s John Profumo, who by most accounts lived the rest of his life trying to make amends from an affair he had with a spy.
Here is the thing, as we read these, it is very likely, dependent on your perspective, that you believe these people just wanted to clear their conscience or found an apology to be the most expedient political course, and it is possible that you are right, but you don’t know for sure.. and is an important distinction. The fact we often lack the ability to make that distinction is a symptom of a society getting so cynical it can’t even appreciate the possibility or value of redemption.
It is easy for all of us to judge harshly and not give grace, but the thing about grace that makes it so unfathomable is that it is undeserved. There will be some people mentioned on this episode that you may decide are not worthy of grace and that is ok- we aren’t asking you to.
We ARE however, asking you to consider the implications of a society that cannot give grace. Are we so focused on shaming that we can’t even give room for redemption?
Shame vs. Guilt
One of the big issues driving American society today is that we are finding ourselves more and shame driven rather guilt driven.
Guilt culture is built on knowing if you are “good” or “bad” by what your conscience feels, but shame culture defines your fitness by what your community says about you and whether is honors or excludes you. Right now social media is the largest source of community most of us have, and we are rapidly turning to shame as our catalyst for change.
Guilt in and of itself is not a bad thing.
Research suggests that guilt is a more adaptive emotion than shame and can prompt a more positive, sustained response than shame.
Shame and guilt lead to contrasting motivations or action tendencies. Shame is typically associated with a desire to deny, hide, or escape; guilt is typically associated with a desire to repair. In this way, guilt is apt to orient people in a constructive, proactive, future-oriented direction, whereas shame is apt to move people toward separation, distancing, and defense.
Guilt becomes a powerful motivator when we either see the effects of our bad behavior (like in the Christmas Carol) or when other people’s good behavior naturally exposes our own lack thereof.
Shame motivates behavior, but on a very shallow way. Perhaps so many of the apologies we hear from power players today don’t ring true because we are increasingly turning into a shaming culture rather than a guilt driven one. Remember, it was a shaming culture that defined much of t colonial America, do we really want to go back to that same philosophy, just with different standards of what constitutes being shameful?
As we have become increasingly relative in terms of what is ok and what isn’t, we really haven’t freed ourselves of anything, we have just replaced it with new standards of measurements. Perhaps we should all focus more on being people that inspire those around us to change for the better. We can criticize a policy wholeheartedly without shaming a person.
Literature and entertainment prove we love a redemption story. Most of us, even in the smallest sense, desire to live one. But the only way we can do that is to give grace. We can accept an apology with a heavy dose of skepticism, but we can also allow for the possibility of truth. We can try a little harder to want truth and goodness to win rather than expect and delight in destruction.
One of my favorite lyrics is from an Avett Brothers song, The Perfect Space;
I wanna have friends that I can trust
That love me for the man I’ve become not the man I was.
History is filled with examples of men who are remembered for the men that they were, not the men they became. I think the point of life is to leave a good legacy. Own when you are wrong, work hard to be the person that you can be, recognize our human frailty and imperfection, strive to be better. We are living in a culture where people want to define people easily. We want right and wrong to be clear. Without nuance, without causing us to think. It is a weakness we are succumbing to and hopefully we can stop. Apologies aren’t good enough.
Part of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the process of taking stock of oneself. I know, for me (Karen) I will continue to try to judge less and remember that by the same measure I judge, I will be judged. And I know I for one need a lot of grace.
As this season inspires many emotions, as we just said, a big part of that is inventory. We review what and who we have in our lives, we grieve what we lost. We are quiet for a moment and we reflect on things bigger than ourselves, and often, we find regret.
Huffington Post ran an article a few years ago listing the top five regrets voiced by hospice patients.This was the list
I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself and not the life others expected of me.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
I wish I had the courage to express my feelings
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends and family.
I wish I had let myself be happier.
If we are breathing, we have the chance to right the ship so that we won’t find ourselves with a bunch of I wishes, but instead, I haves.
We leave you with this quote from “It’s a Wonderful Life”…
Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.