Vincent Van Gogh, a man who knew his share of pain, had a favorite Christmas story by Dickens that he read every year, and it wasn’t the one with Scrooge and the ghosts. His mother blamed him for hounding his father into an early death. Van Gogh experienced a lot of lonely Christmases, lamenting his life. His comfort? Ironically, the darkest Christmas story there is, but one with an eventual light—and lesson—that is its own guiding star.
The story is called “The Haunted Man,” and if you want a break from A Christmas Carol this year, there’s no worthier read. It’s about a chemistry professor named Redlaw, who is haunted by a phantom that looks like him. The phantom twin has an offer for the teacher: he can forget everything that has hurt him, and bestow this “gift” on others.
Redlaw accepts, and gets into this idea of granting what he thinks is peace. Arriving at the home of one of his students, who is ill, he makes the young man forget his suffering. The pupil then behaves horribly to the woman who cares for him, as Redlaw tries to hide himself so that he doesn’t end up making the nurse forget, too.
Redlaw isn’t a great guy, but when he receives this power, he thinks he can be altruistic. He’ll make Christmas festal for all, because he knows that the shortened days function as set dressing for darkling memories. Christmas is a season of sibilance. Hushed tones, carols sung at low volumes, and sighs. For Van Gogh, and for many, they are the sighs of “what if” and “I wish that had never happened.”
“The Haunted Man” reminds us that there are worse sighs. There are the soul-aching moans of missing out on experiences that remind us, even if they result in pain—and pain that lingers—that one is alive. All is not over. There will be pain in the future as well, but if there’s pain, there can be depths of emotion that are joyous. And maybe the latter isn’t what it might be without the former.
“The Haunted Man” rekindles the knowledge that a lot of the good one may do in this world is in trying to help others. That shapes both parties, and also connections.
Those connections fall to the ground like strips of tinsel in “The Haunted Man.” People don’t remember what they’ve come through together, or with themselves. When they don’t remember that, their bonds change. They don’t think about what that other person did for them, and so they’re less patient and forgiving. When they end the relationship, they hurt themselves.
This doesn’t mean it’s time to quaff a flagon of porter in toasting what it means to hurt. No one tries to be hurt. But, having hurt, one is also given something that fits under no tree: a deeper understanding of just how much they can feel. And if one can feel this bad thing over here…well, one can also feel this great thing over there. Patience helps, and faith—a faith in the range of human experience, and being open to that range.
Redlaw implores to have the bargain reversed, all but begging to suffer, because if he can’t suffer, he can’t have anything else, and none of the people he “saved” will as well.
In the end, when the haunting resumes, Redlaw’s joy is comparable to Scrooge’s. Take your Christmas gifts where they com, because they really do come in all forms. And the one you think you like the least, may be the most important of all.