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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

George Bailey, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Concern of Others

Recently we watched a Christmas movie of sorts, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner. It is loosely-based on Charles Dickens's, A Christmas Carol, and tells the story of a womanizing photographer (Matthew McConaughey) who through the visits of three female ghosts on the eve of his brother's wedding, comes to learn that his current life is shallow, that he is still in love with his childhood sweetheart (Jennifer Garner), and that if he continues on his present course, he will die alone (he is shown that there will be only one mourner at his funeral -- his brother). In the end, of course, he repents of his shallow ways, reunites with Jennifer Garner, and (presumably) lives happily ever after.

About a year ago, I watched another take on Dickens's tale that appeared on the Disney television series, The Suite Life on Deck. In this particular episode, the very rich, selfish, and not terribly bright character, London Tipton, refuses to give anything for homeless and sick children during Christmas. On Christmas Eve night, London's mirror takes her back to the past, the present and the future. After discovering that in the future her friends will loathe her, she concludes that it is better to give than to receive, and sells her Christmas presents in order to buy gifts for the needy children.

What is interesting about these new takes on "A Christmas Carol" or its somewhat related counterpart, "It's a Wonderful Life" (starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed), is that the newer movies appeal more to self-interest rather than to self-giving. In both the Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and The Suite Life on Deck, the main characters appear to be motivated to change more because they fear dying alone than out of any real concern for others.

To be sure, just like Matthew McConaughey's character, Ebenezer Scrooge does learn that he will die alone and that no one will attend his funeral, but he also learns that Tiny Tim will not live, and readers are left with the impression that he is motivated more out of concern for Tiny Tim (and others who are less fortunate) than he is out of concern for himself. Similarly, George Bailey does learn that he's lived a wonderful life (although at first blush it doesn't appear that way), but his life has been wonderful because it has been dedicated to caring for those whose lives have been less than easy.

That being said, research has shown that we do benefit from caring for others. All else being equal, those who dedicate a large part of their lives to caring for those less fortunate live more fulfilling lives. It really is more blessed to give than receive. But here's the kicker: if we give strictly out of self-interest (i.e., to make our lives more fulfilling), then we will receive no benefit. We only benefit from giving if we give out a genuine concern for others. And if you ask me, while Charles Dickens and Frank Capra seem to have instinctively understood this, that message is getting lost in modern reinterpretations of those classic tales.

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