I was going to write a blog post about cherished holiday stories, but my brain stalled at the very first one—A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It is a classic for so many reasons and it has inspired countless variations on the basic tale of greed, charity, and second chances. When did my brain stall? I stopped as soon as I thought about Jacob Marley. The very first of the ghosts to visit Ebenezer Scrooge, he is the neglected ghost.
Jacob Marley does not take Scrooge back in time. He does not reveal the reality of contemporary poverty. And he doesn’t give his former business partner a peek into a dismal future. All Marley does is rattle his chains and reveal his regrets.
That’s where I got stuck.
People talk about living without regrets and authors of fiction often hold up the courageous, adventurous, risk-takers as the character without regrets. He, or she, is bold and exciting—the character who climbs the mountain, leaves the confines of small town life, or stows away on a ship bound for Alaska (or the moon). The regrets these characters don’t experience are the regrets of the chance not taken.
Most of us—as real life, non-fiction people—live with regrets of this kind. The path not taken might have been more glamorous, more dangerous, more amorous, and more fabulous. It could also have led to prison, financial ruin, early death, or a boatload of REGRETS about having not finished school, not taken the job, not married the nice guy, and not continued to play the piano. Life is all about making choices and regrets—even minor, whispering, curious notions—are part of life. Just because you quit the piano doesn’t mean that had you continued to practice you’d be a concert pianist right now and the nice guy might have bored you to death or turned out to be a quiet serial killer.
Regretting the path not taken gets us nowhere.
Jacob Marley’s regrets were different. It wasn’t excitement he’d missed. It was kindness. His greed overrode any inclination toward charity, compassion, empathy, sympathy, friendship, and love. His message to Scrooge is simple—change or be doomed. Marley didn’t regret traveling to China or choosing not to invest in an innovative company. He regretted being a selfish and greedy man.
So it all boils down to kindness and generosity. It’s not about being the most exciting, amusing, intriguing, and spectacular character. No regrets come from being good.
Um… That’s another kind of no-regrets character.