Bah Humbug! How Ebenezer Scrooge & Poetry Can Save America…

Charles Dickens, like all great artists knew that simply describing the idea of generosity would never move hearts or change lives. Rather, he wanted his readers of A Christmas Carol to feel and experience first hand the heart and soul-redeeming joy of helping others, while also experiencing the soul-starving, heart-breaking sadness and alienation of a life filled with stinginess and hoarding.

Of course, most know that it’s 4 ghosts deliver the emotion-packed experience of the story. Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s deceased and stingy partner first warns Scrooge not to follow in his sorry footsteps. The ghost of Marley shows us what his hellish existence of dragging self-created chains of selfishness looks like up close and personal. Scrooge and we get it!

Next, of course, come the three ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. These scary creatures help us by collapsing time and consequences into an emotional tale we cannot ignore. Of course, by the end of the story, Scrooge is begging for the chance to redeem himself, which he receives and joyfully embraces with the most un-Scrooge like behavior you can imagine.

But what does this have to do with America today and even more puzzling what does it have to do with poetry helping America today?

I, we, many of us in my estimation have become miserly and stingy listeners of many of our fellow human beings. Armed with my assumptions, beliefs and in some cases an oversized load of self-righteousness, I often find myself not listening to those I disagree with socially and politically.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I want to love my enemy, but I also want to use every fiber of my strength to have the world turn out differently than what my enemies often say they want. I use the word love as my friend and mentor; Brother David Steindl-Rast defines it. He says love at its most essential means we belong together.

Brother David is quick to point out that there are many kinds of love, such as love for our parents, siblings, mate, pet, job, art, etc. Yet, says Brother David, “Love in every one of its forms is a lived “yes” to belonging.”

So in the spirit of belonging to my enemies for which I often deeply disagree, I offer up this poem by William Stafford, which is featured in my new prose book, Poetry For The Leader Inside You: A Search and Rescue Mission For The Heart and Soul.

The poem is called A Ritual To Read To Each Other. May I ask you to read this poem at least twice, slowly and out loud to yourself? Please don’t rush, because your heart needs time to let the poem in to do its good work.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

––William Stafford

After a little reflection on what you’ve just read let me invite you to write a few notes about your experience. Many have found this poem moving.

For me, this poem is simultaneously hopeful, intimidating and wise. I remember and get deeply my own “betrayals of the mind.” Those being the times when I have looked away from things I should never have looked away from. That’s when these lines become both confronting and instructive:

I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

Notice how the poem includes a kind of surround sound feel and look at the collective cost of not taking the time to understand others, especially our enemies. Notice the ghost-like voices we hear in the poem warning us about those “patterns that others made prevailing in our world.” And how we can actually “miss our star” and be cast into not just darkness, but into the very deepest darkness if we take advantage of one another.

If like me, you are moved by this poem, even a little then keep it for your self. Put it in a place where you can read it when needed to wake up and remember the part of you that is the most open, courageous and creative.

And yes, stand up strong for your convictions. We can understand, love and respect our enemies and still fight like crazy to have our vision (not theirs) come true. The simple point is if we do take the time to listen to each other we can’t help but get closer to common goals and often much better solutions.

In my 25 years of coaching and teaching I have seen so many times how simply understanding each other more fully opens up worlds of new possibilities. After all, we can understand someone more fully and still not agree with him or her. That’s fine. At least we have shown them genuine respect and compassion. And often we get breakthroughs of new possibilities we never imagined.

Of course, if we feel they are truly damaging the common good, we can do everything humanly possible to block their goals from ever happening. And we can do all this, while still loving our enemies and protecting our own heart from the corrosive damage of bitterness, contempt and self-righteousness. Truth is, when we are awake, these states of mind are nearly impossible to sustain.

So to all my friends who have despaired so much and so deeply this last year, I understand fully. And yet, still I say love will set us free. A fierce, kind and enduring love I mean. A love that is a lived yes to belonging.

We each need to be constantly reminded of our higher angels. I feel we each need a constant stream of well chose stories and poems in particular to live into more deeply. Poems that lift us up and wonderfully wake us up.

So happy holidays to all my dear friends, clients and colleagues and may the mutual parade of our lives be illuminated by the most amazing light!

PS: Please check out my new book at Amazon or here at

PS PS: Dates and times for new speaking events are here.

William Stafford, “A Ritual To Read To Each Other,” from Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems. Copyright © 1960, 1998, 2014 by William Stafford and the Estate of William Stafford. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,

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