Charles Dickens’ criticism of the pursuit of wealth remains relevant – Ewan Aitken

If we ignore the need for compassion, kindness and love in the drive for wealth and fame, it can destroy us, writes Ewan Aitken.

Friday, 27th December 2019, 6:00 am
Crawford Logan as Scrooge in An Edinburgh Christmas Carol at the Lyceum

‘Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” So wrote George Orwell in 1946. It would seem fake news became the norm and truth a casualty of power long before this past year, though I think we could safely argue it’s been taken to a whole new level on both sides of the Atlantic.

Truth is never singular. I saw an excellent show at the Lyceum this year, Barbershop Chronicles, which took the same day in 2012 and much of the same news and viewed it through the eyes of the staff and customers in six different African barbershops across the world. It’s an adventure of kinship, memory, family, secrecy, hope and, of course, truth though as the play showed quite brilliantly what was understood to be truth was different, sometimes subtly but still different. Truth is never one-eyed.

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How an Edinburgh gravestone inspired Ebenezer Scrooge

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Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland

Ebenezer Scroggie

I was back at the Lyceum for their brilliant production of A Christmas Carol, which is set in Edinburgh and introduces Greyfriars Bobby to the cast in the form of an excellent puppet.

A Christmas Carol being set in Edinburgh wasn’t in truth a stretch – one of the stories about A Christmas Carol is the name Scrooge comes from a headstone in Canongate Kirkyard which Dickens saw in 1841 in memory of an “Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie – a meal man”, the description being a reference to his work as a corn merchant.

Dickens apparently misread it as “a mean man” and wondered why such a harsh thing would be put on someone’s gravestone. So from not quite fake news but mistaken identify, came the classic story, which has done so much to shape our idea of a good Christmas.

Dickens’ critique of the pursuit of money over all other human connections still resonates today. He may have misunderstood the truth about the life of Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie but he was spot on about the pursuit of wealth and power in itself being destructive to the human condition.

Live the changes we seek

When it becomes our purpose, it can destroy us. I am not having a go at either wealth itself or people who are wealthy. It’s when the journey to wealth and power causes suffering to others on the way because the pursuit of wealth and power, as was the case with Scrooge, supersedes the need for compassion, kindness and love.

Just as Scrooge eventually discovered sharing and caring was better than selfishness and miserliness, the antidote to fake news, lies and people seeking power for their own ends is to live our lives as we would want others to live them, in kindness, compassion and love, even when it’s tough to act in this way when others are making choices which are destructive to them and those around them. As Gandhi is supposed to have said, we need to live the change we seek. Acting in kindness and compassion doesn’t mean just accepting when a politician lies or someone chooses money over humanity. But it does mean making sure how we engage with them focuses on seeking to see their humanity first, trying to understand why they act in the way they do and the way they see the world and communicating with firm gentleness through that prism and not our own anger and prejudice.

In Cyrenians we have a key principle of unconditional positive regard which means always focusing on the person no matter what we might feel about their choices or the journey they have taken. It is a principle, which if applied in our responses to those who seek to hold power, could transform our wider public debate and draw those who seek power at whatever cost into a very different space.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland