The Banality of Bitter: “A Christmas Carol” revisited

Channel-surfing last night, I stumbled upon Patrick Stewart’s TV-version of “A Christmas Carol” (not his one-man show).

Watching Scrooge visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past for the umpteenth time in my life, I had a bit of unexpected insight.

As you get older, you get bitter.

Or at least you run the risk.

It’s something I never appreciated at all when I was younger. Now, I get it. Not to say that I’ve become bitter. But rather, that entering my sixth decade of life (I’m 51) I’ve begun to understand how it is that people become bitter, in a way I never appreciated when I was younger.


Patrick Stewart and Joel Grey in the 1999 production of “A Christmas Carol.”

I like to cite the example of the apocryphal old man yelling at the kid to get off his lawn. We laugh at the story because it seems so ridiculous to even care about someone walking on your grass. And it is ridiculous — the first time the kid does it. And maybe the tenth or even the 100th time as well. But imagine that man living in that house 50 years, and having just gone through five decades of kids trampling his flowers and cutting a dirt path through his nice green grass. I can understand how by the 49th year, the old guy has just about had it.

It’s something I’ve experienced as an online writer and advocate. People email me. A lot. And I’ve found over the years that, perhaps because the medium is online rather than in-person, some people sometimes assume the worst (and the worst tone) when contacting you for the first time. In other words, they’re kind of gratuitously mean in a way they might not be when approaching you in person.

Now, the first time a stranger is gratuitously mean to you, you laugh it off. But the 500th time, it’s a lot harder to shrug off. In fact, by the 500th time, you’re ready to bite the head off of bunnies. And you suddenly find that you’re becoming the old man yelling at the kids.

One of the things you tend to think increasingly about as you age is mortality. And I’ve found it’s not simply a matter of thinking about death because you’re one step closer to it. It’s also about watching people around you die who you may not have expected to go so soon. It could be friends, parents, siblings, or even (especially) a child (and also, I’d add, celebrities). And the older you get, the more of them that pass. And like the proverbial old guy with the lawn, over time the serially repeated experience changes you.

Now, that’s not to say that you might not change for the better. Death is one heck of a motivator. As a kid, probably like every kid, I imagined what it would be like to be immortal (probably due to reading a few too many Greek myths). At the time it sounded pretty cool. Now, I’m not so sure. First, what’s the incentive to do anything if you have unlimited time? “There’s always tomorrow” — literally.

But a worse thought crossed my mind: Imagine how bitter people would become the millionth time they got cut off driving to work in the morning. Or the 500,000th year some kid stepped on their lawn.

My point is that experience changes us. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. And taking this all back to Scrooge, and how his carefree younger self turned into a bitter old, well, scrooge, the challenge for all of us is how to channel our growing list of experiences into something positive; or at the very least, not have them change us permanently for the worse.

As I said at the outset, I’m not worried that I’ve become bitter. I do, however, worry about becoming bitter. When I was a kid and watched “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge was an outsider; an oddity. He wasn’t me, and there was no way he was ever going to be me. So while the show was entertaining, it’s lesson was somewhat lost.

But now that I’m older, I’ve met a lot more Scrooges in my day. And I’ve gotten to appreciate how Scrooges come to be. And it’s not by a fluke. We all have the potential to become a bit of a bastard over time. And becoming aware of that fact is perhaps the biggest challenge, and lesson, of “A Christmas Carol.”

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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62 Responses to “The Banality of Bitter: “A Christmas Carol” revisited”

  1. cleos_mom says:

    There’s another upside to age — you are forever, and blessedly, released from the increasingly obnoxious burden of having to be cool. Or, more accurately, thinking that you have to be.

  2. cleos_mom says:

    The “new” old ages are part of a fairly new phenomenon — the pressure on elders to, basically, impersonate young people. For all the catastrophic down sides of literal immortality, much of present-day attitude toward elders stems from the uneasy reminder that no — exercising, being very careful and eating a mind-numbingly boring diet will not prevent you from dying eventually. And people don’t like that reminder one bit.

  3. cleos_mom says:

    There was also a classic “Twilight Zone” episode about what a curse physical immortality would be.

  4. cleos_mom says:

    No; the story shows how he went from an affectionate, hopeful youth to a bitter old man. It was a believable progression since Dickens was skillful enough to make it clear that it happened over a period of years in tiny steps.

  5. atalex says:

    The absolute best moment in “A Christmas Carol” is the bit that, sadly, is most commonly left out of modern productions — that moment where the Ghost of Christmas Present angrily throws open his robe to reveal two sickly children he names Ignorance and Want and upon whose brow is written the doom of all who willfully ignore their existence.

  6. Silver_Witch says:

    better still if you just water before tasering….

  7. Bill_Perdue says:

    Not really. It’s too late to begin to place the blame on Obama. Obama could operate as a Republican and Romney as a Democrat because the parties are virtually identical. And in the long run, that makes them both Whigs.

    “In these conditions, it is
    hardly surprising that elections cannot address fundamental problems. … The
    problem is not just that lesser evil voting tends to make available choices
    worse over time. The recent history of the Democratic Party provides ample
    evidence of this phenomenon. The larger problem is that voters tend to be
    myopic, focusing only on candidates’ personal qualities and not on the larger
    impact of their victories or defeats. When this more appropriate perspective is
    assumed, it is not always clear which candidate actually is the lesser evil.”

    What will break this chain is the creation of mass single-issue movements to compel and the creation of mass labor and socialist parties.

  8. judybrowni says:

    Which is part of the problem.

  9. Bill_Perdue says:

    “The truth of the matter is that my policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.” Obama, in an interview with Noticias Univision 23. ABC News, 12 15 2012

  10. judybrowni says:

    I’m at the age where everyone annoys me equally.

    Except Republicans: if I had a lawn, I’d be happy shoot any Republicans who trespassed on it.

    Lucky thing I don’t own a lawn — or a shot gun.

  11. Rick B says:

    You were not wrong.

    I was just trying to make the point that most people
    mistake the payment system for the overall health care system. That’s
    why we presently have a health care system managed primarily by
    (medically ignorant) financial insurance experts. They design payment systems to save money rather than to cure illnesses.

    The financial experts try to save money by limiting what treatments can be provided based entirely on the costs. I am aware of one person who had an unusual cancer who was refused by his HMO the right to go to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston (The finest cancer research hospital in the United States, and by some estimates, in the world – by numerous independent raters) because MD Anderson was not in network.

    Financial experts belong on the staff of medical care run by medical experts. They should not be running the health care system. We do not want financial gamblers like Wall Street Bankers or AIG running health care any more than we want them running the real economy.

  12. Zorba says:

    And if the taser fails, k, we have two shotguns and a rifle, if you want to borrow them.
    (Kidding, kidding, for those who don’t recognize snark. We don’t shoot kids trespassing on our property, really we don’t.)

  13. LOL or not ;)

  14. emjayay says:

    I understand, but I figure the Wikipedia definition reflects the common concept of what single payer means, and by the definition I quoted, Medicare is single payer and is in fact generally considered as such. I get the objections to insurance companies. I was just attempting to clarify an erroneous definition that contradicted my comment (not that I’m always right about everything). Like the definition states, there are a lot of ways of doing single payer.

  15. 2karmanot says:

    Some people over 50 do adjust well to change. I for example totally
    approve of tasers to keep brats off my astroturf.

  16. Hue-Man says:

    Celebrities die (I won’t make a M*A*S*H* reference). I’ve come to accept that celebrities didn’t die in such vast numbers in my youth as they do today because there weren’t as many stars before the advent of television. Take Gone With The Wind; at nearly 4 hours, it starred some of the great names of the 1930s and 1940s. Starting in the 1950s, ONE TV channel carried more programming in one day than GWTW and therefore more stars. If I’m right, this is the New Normal.

    About kids/lawn. Old people, i.e. anyone over 51, don’t like change so wouldn’t consider building a picket fence to keep Dennis the Menace from crossing the lawn.

    If you think you’re too young for autobiography/memoir, you can invest $5.93 on Amazon to buy the biography of a 17 year old Justin Bieber!

  17. Rick B says:

    “Single-payer health care is a[n insurance] system in which the government, rather than private insurers, pays for all health care costs.

    Don’t confuse the source of payment with the actual provision of health care. That puts financial managers in charge of health care decisions for society instead of physicians and health care providers. Financial decisions are inherently less competent and less just than are decisions to actually provide health care services.

    One reason why the financial managers in the insurance industry and their tame politicians are fighting the ACA so adamantly is that they are a branch of the financial economy who think they should command the real economy. They decide who deserves to receive health care, not who needs health care and can benefit from it.

    Financial managers should not be allowed to allocate health care resources. Physicians and those who need health care should be making that allocation, and physicians are the experts, not the insurance bean counters.

  18. Hue-Man says:

    I’ve never seen a bill for my doctor, hospital procedures, lab tests, etc. The only medical bills I get are for non-covered services – dental, vision, pharma – and those are invoiced and paid before I leave their offices.

  19. Bill_Perdue says:

    The amount Medicare pays to doctors offices, clinics, radiologists, labs, etc has been repeatedly shashed to save money for insurance companeis by both the Bush and Obama regimes and Congress. The amounts insurance companies are paid and the items they will cover is pegged to Medicare payments and coverage and as those are slashed insurance compaines slash theirs. The upshot is that medical billing agencies routinely try to defraud patients and often get away with it.

    Medicare at it’s best is not socialized medicine, which is what’s needed.

  20. LOL I’m taking that as a pun :)

  21. Good points. AT least starting to document the vignettes could be worth while. I actually thought it would have been fun to have written a family memoir. Interview the older family members about what it was like growing up, what the other family members were like, etc. And especiallty my grandparents, who are all gone now. I do have a family history that my Greek uncle wrote a few years back. It’s in greek (and in cursive handwriting, no less), and basically just writes a graf about each ancestor going back to about the year 1700 or so. But I wish I had interviewed my grandparents and the older relatives.

  22. gratuitous says:

    Boy some shots at me from out of nowhere! When I’m mean, I try to do it as honestly as possible.

  23. I think the Greeks gives good genes :) At least that’s my story. My sis, who’s about 6 or 7 years older than me, often gets taken for being younger than me. And mom and dad look a good ten years younger than they are.

  24. And seriously, can you imagine having to deal with Sarah Palin forever?

  25. Oh god, eternal student loans!

  26. It’s funny, but as a Muppet fun, I’m not sure I’ve seen it! I’ll look, thanks.

  27. emjayay says:

    “Also, your writing is free of any Hemingway-esque pretensions that many male writers harbor.”

    I guess he hates women AND men.

    But I guess if you are going to name a male writer, you should also give an example or two of the type of female writers you are objecting to. I’m wondering anyway.

  28. emjayay says:

    I was in Kaiser in SF, Honolulu, and DC. And in what is called an HMO in NYC as a federal government employee, and now with a Medicare Advantage plan, which works exactly the same as the government employee HMO. Almost no bills. Blood tests which for some reason are billed at $13 if done at a separate business. Blood tests and biopsys free if done at a doctor appointment. No paperwork. With my current deal, no copay for primary care doctor, $10 for specialist. Outpatient surgery $150.

  29. emjayay says:

    From Wikipedia:

    “Single-payer health care is a system in which the government, rather than private insurers, pays for all health care costs.Single-payer systems may contract for healthcare services from private organizations (as is the case in Canada) or may own and employ healthcare resources and personnel (as is the case in the United Kingdom).

    The term ‘single-payer’ thus only describes the funding mechanism—referring to health care financed by a single public body from a single fund—and does not specify the type of delivery, or for whom doctors work. The actual funding of a “single payer” system comes from all or a portion of the covered population. Although the fund holder is usually the state, some forms of single-payer use a mixed public-private system.”

    (With Medicare, the insured pays $105 a month plus copays and the government pays the rest.)

  30. HeartlandLiberal says:

    John et al, if you have never seen it I highly recommend the Muppets’ Christmas Carol version of the movie. It is an annual ritual for me to watch it. Michael Caine as Scrooge is marvelous. The entire film is simply magic and moving from beginning to end, with adult level humor and dialog all the way through, especially with narration framing it by Gonzo as Dickens, accompanied by Rizzo the Rat. It is a spellbinding retelling of the tale, one which helps me keep from becoming bitter, which is a consideration as I have about 18 more years of mileage accumulated than John.

  31. Indigo says:

    It was Henry Ford the elder who, nearing the end of a lifetime of innovative automobile production, responded to the onslaught of public pressure and demands, so the story goes, to utter that most memorable of quotes in the lexicon of Americana: “People are no damned good!”

  32. Indigo says:

    That puts me in my 80th decade! Aged 73 years so far . . .

  33. FLL says:

    Patience is a necessary tool when you’re teaching people something like foreign language or ESL, especially if it’s adult college students whose adult ego is way more of an obstacle than a 10 year old’s ego. I would like to hope that patience is not a commodity that just get’s used up as the years go by. I prefer to think that there’s some little machine inside us that continually manufactures more patience, but the machine requires more maintenance as we get older. So that means that we can’t just hand out patience indiscriminately, like we did when we were younger. You have to be more discerning about how and when and to whom you dole out patience. If you can see that a person or situation is a useless drain on your store of patience—and for no good reason—you just have to hang up that sign that says “Gone Fishing.” Actually, fishing—or even claiming to go fishing—might not be a bad idea. Just don’t start walking out the door without the fishing gear. A man who does that might hear his wife say “Aren’t you forgetting something?” Did I mention that comedy becomes even more sacred as we get older?

  34. Tatts says:

    Hey, you 51-year-olds, get off my lawn!

    Actually, I think people get more mellow. F’r’instance–criminality decreases with age, reckless driving decreases, decision-making improves, and I think people are more–not less–likely to brush things off. I don’t think bitterness is separate from the above traits. Some people are bitter and nasty and others aren’t. Those traits may be brought into sharper relief with time.

    Wasn’t Scrooge always bitter and miserly, even when he was younger? I don’t remember that detail. I just remember that the closing lines of the story always get to me…
    “And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”

  35. Tatts says:

    51 is the new 60.

  36. Ella_2 says:

    “..And like the proverbial old guy with the lawn, over time the serially repeated experience changes you….But now that I’m older, I’ve met a lot more Scrooges in my day. And I’ve gotten to appreciate how Scrooges come to be. And it’s not by a fluke. We all have the potential to become a bit of a bastard over time. And becoming aware of that fact is perhaps the biggest challenge, and lesson, of “A Christmas Carol…”

    So true!!

  37. Ella_2 says:

    He looks amazing! I often think John ought to ask his mom if she got his birth date right. He looks way younger than 51.

  38. Sam_Handwich says:

    That’s interesting, because i find myself becoming less Scroogey as i age

  39. 2patricius2 says:

    I had always intended on writing a memoir. I thought I would wait till I retired to do so. But then when an older brother had just retired in his mid-sixties, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and had to have a kidney removed. (He survived and is still going strong at 85). But I thought to myself (being 13 years younger than he – in my early fifties-) that life is uncertain. If I wanted to write, I had to do it then. I might not live long enough to put my memories and thoughts to paper. So I sat down at my computer and wrote several hundred pages over the course of the next year or so. I am still adding things from time to time. I must admit (when I peruse some of the pages) to being surprised at how many things I remembered back then that I had since forgotten.

    So my suggestion is to write some things down now. The future is unwritten and uncertain. You can always add things later. But if you do want to write a memoir, at least start while you remember things and while you have the time. And judging from the story you just related, and from the life you have lived and the things you have accomplished, you have a lot of very interesting stories to tell. And you can always weave them together however you want when you have put them into words.

  40. nicho says:

    No it is not single payer. Big, big misconception. Insurance companies are still involved. It is multi-payer. The adminstrative bullshit, which I’m going through now, is incredible. The Medicare Advantage plans are HMOs. They get a stipend for you every month from the government and they make a profit by denying care. I can tell you horror stories that friends have gone through — one of them with Kaiser. I have Medicare with a supplement plan. I am fortunate, but the paperwork is staggering. Everyone submits a bill for everything they do. The bill I’m trying to figure out was one charge I got and paid for a doctor’s visit in April. (I Haven’t met the deductible yet.) Now, they’re looking for more money for the same visit. No one seems to know why. I deal with three insurance companies — Medicare, my supplement plan, and my prescription plan.

    You just don’t get charged for a doctor’s visit. If they draw blood, it’s a separate charge. If they run a test, it’s a separate charge. The doctor submits a bill and the “facility” submits a bill.

    Single payer is when you go to the doctor, show your card, get treated and go home. Over and done. That is NOT Medicare.

    I even tried to develop a spreadsheet to keep track, but it didn’t work.

  41. Jim Olson says:

    You’re not too young for a memoir. And you don’t have to write just one.

  42. Jim Olson says:

    Youth is wasted on the young.

  43. perljammer says:

    I don’t think I’m really bitter; I do, however, share George Carlin’s “low tolerance for stupid BS” (may not be considered safe for work due to a single f-bomb, and BS abbreviation expansion)

  44. emjayay says:

    I understand everything you said, but Medicare IS single-payer universal health care for people 65 or older. If you mean more of a National Health type system, see if Kaiser Permanente or some other organization is running a traditional HMO in your area. Doctors on salary, lots of services in one building. Or even some other kind of Medicare Advantage plan.

  45. 2karmanot says:

    Wonderful story. I suspect nothing inspires hope for peace than sharing space with a handsome young man.

  46. 2karmanot says:

    “the sort of horrible poetic affectation that beleaguers a lot of female writers of your age-group and older,—-” that’s what of which I disapprove—–sounds chauvinistic.

  47. 2karmanot says:

    I don’t trust anyone under sixty—-except for John of course.

  48. 2karmanot says:

    duly bitten!

  49. Yep. That really was an amazing video.

  50. FriendofPoopyhead says:

    This story is pure gold. Holy shit. Is this Ted Stevens of Internet Tubes fame?

    And no, you’re definitely not too young for a memoir. My suggestion is that maybe you find some way to make sets out of the vignettes? By geography perhaps? Or chronology? Or maybe even themes?

    Somehow I think something more abstract and less literal and trite like organizing by geography or time-period might work out better for you given your intelligence and analytical ability. I would suggest going with whatever feels intuitively correct for you as opposed to something that works in an obvious fashion.

    If you don’t feel like writing a whole book, do at least write more of your personal observations. There are just not a lot of gay men in your age-group who have had the kind of life you have. Or if they do, they simply don’t talk about it. You’ve got some really great content here.

  51. FriendofPoopyhead says:

    You sound upset. How come? What do you disapprove of?

  52. heimaey says:

    Thanks for reminding me that I’m in my fifth decade…sigh.

  53. Bite your tongue. 51 ;-)

  54. Yes, I was afraid folks would think 60. I did the math on my fingers first :)

  55. Thanks :) I’ve always felt a bit too young for a memoir. I have, fortunately, had a lot of vignettes in my life at this point. Though not sure how to weave them together into a book. One good example: I was telling mom the other day how I met then- Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He was meeting with my then-boss Senator Stevens in the US Capitol Building. It was me and Stevens, and like 20 of Rabin’s staff and security. A number of people sat down, I stayed in the back against the wall, good Stevens staffer that I was Rabin. Rabin look at me and told me to have a seat. I told him I was fine. He repeated, please have a seat. Stevens now glared at me, as though I were somehow instigating the conversation. I politely demurred, and told him there was nowhere to sit in any case, seriously, I was fine. Rabin then scooched over on his seat, so half his butt was on it, and the other half was hanging off the right side of his chair, he then took his hand and patted the now open half of his chair to his left, and ordered me to sit. At this point, Stevens had icicles come out of his eyes. And not because I was refusing the seat, but rather, in his own mind (I suppose), he felt that I was somehow intentionally trying to having a conversation with the visiting head of state — which I most certainly was not. So, I walked over, with the entire room looking at me, and shared a chair, buddy-style, butt-cheek to butt-cheek, with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Who then proceeded to talk at length, and I understood not a word. (Man the guy had an accent.) He was assassinated a few years later.

  56. 2karmanot says:

    And if ya do cross my lawn, step into a gopher hole and break your leg——future actors excluded.

  57. 2karmanot says:

    “the sort of horrible poetic affectation that beleaguers a lot of female writers of your age-group and older,—-” OMG, you did have to go there. If you are going to kiss a** better to hire an editor.

  58. heimaey says:

    Sixth decade – he’s in his 50s. ;) Not that he looks bad for that either.

  59. 2karmanot says:

    Great read John. You are 60? OMG, now I am bitter, you look so much younger. “As you get older, you get bitter.” Well, when one gets much older, one realizes that truth trumps reality. However, denial is an exquisite art in itself and provides a halcyon view, if not optimism.

  60. nicho says:

    You’re trained as a kid to put up with a lot of shit. And you just accept that that’s the way things are. That’s what schools are for.

    As you get older and wiser, you begin to realize that you don’t need to put up with that crap. I don’t see any reason to waste time on people who are total assholes. I used to, but I’ve gotten over it. I just don’t bother with them. I also don’t mind speaking up when someone is trying to take advantage of me. Now, some people are looking for trouble and bitch about everything. I don’t, but I also don’t take it in silence when someone is trying to screw me or does something stupid.

    Recent example. I am now on my third day of trying to straighten out a medical bill. I was charged twice for the same appointment — both different amounts. I can’t find anyone to explain that to me. First, they won’t take your call. You have to leave a message and wait for them to get ready to call you back. Then, you get low-level employees who can only read stuff from their computer screen, which is basically the same thing you see on the bill. Not helpful.

    Yesterday, one young woman helpfully explained that “they must have done something.” I started to get a little testy, but then I realized that she didn’t design the system and is doing the best she can. So I apologized. Then, the question becomes who do I yell at. I never get to see or talk to the people who designed the system. The young woman is going to send me a copy of the bill, which is what I already have. I told her to go ahead and I thanked her.

    (BTW — I am on Medicare. So much for “Medicare for all.” That’s not the answer. Single-payer, universal health care is the only way to go.)

  61. FriendofPoopyhead says:

    You know, John, I’m suspecting that inside of you is a frustrated and sad memoirist just waiting to come out. Please let that memoirist out.

    I get the feeling that you’ve been through a lot personally and professionally. You are a unique person and you have a lot of unique perspectives. Consider writing a book, John. You’ve got a lot to express. And you express it beautifully and more importantly, accurately and well. Your writing is refreshingly free of ornamentation and the sort of horrible poetic affectation that beleaguers a lot of female writers of your age-group and older, and younger, even when you write about personal topics that female writers generally tackle. Also, your writing is free of any Hemingway-esque pretensions that many male writers harbor. And neither do you do the horrible things that straight male writers do like curse excessively or ponder exactly how they can keep women happy etc. etc. Ugh.

    You have an unusual voice, and you don’t mince words. Please do consider writing a book containing anecdotes, remembrances and your general impressions of people you’ve met and places you’ve been. I’ll buy it.

    Nobody else has a sensible, grounded, pragmatic and yet deeply sensitive voice like yours. You have a lot of sadness in your writing and I think that’s a wonderful thing. It’s the kind of sadness that people need to pay attention to and it’s not off-putting at all.

  62. dcinsider says:

    Bah humbug! Liberal claptrap. Get off my lawn!

    Seriously, nice article. Something to think about.


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