Friday, December 17, 2010

Revisiting A Charlie Brown Christmas: All You Need Is Love

For years, A Charlie Brown Christmas has, for me, been one of the heralds of the Holiday Season. I've never outgrown it and God forbid I ever do. My favorite scene, I think, is of Snoopy dancing on Schroeder's piano. His unselfconscious abandonment to the moment is something I dearly love.

At the same time, however, I'm also ashamed of Snoopy for joining in when the other children are laughing at Charlie Brown. I want to say, bad dog, no treats for you. But Snoopy's failure shows that no one is perfect and even those we rely on the most can yield to peer pressure. We all hope our courage will hold and we won't deny our friends "three times before the cock crows." It's at times like these when to err is human hits home the hardest.

Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas last night, in this, it's 45th year, something about the story crept up behind and whacked me over the head, something I've quite honestly never seen before, or at least in quite this way. Charlie Brown is depressed, as you know, and goes to Lucy for psychiatric assistance. She listens, so far as Lucy ever listens to anyone, and rather than offering him a diagnosis, she proceeds directly to treatment. "You need involvement," she says. In other words, what's wrong with you isn't important, just get busy and you'll be fine.

But Charlie isn't fine and taking her prescription results in treatment failure. His efforts to direct their Christmas play fall apart because he and the cast are coming from different psychological places, a situation Lucy might have anticipated, had she been able. That she didn't, stems from her presumption that, as an "expert," she knows best and depression, loneliness, or isolation are purely behavioral phenomena. The idea that he might, following Sioux wisdom, have a "bad heart," never occurs to her.
Now, I realize I'm asking a lot of Lucy, but it doesn't take much to listen well. Children do it more often than they're given credit for; we just need to pay close enough attention to notice.

Charlie's cry for help, "Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?" tells us, superficially, that he very badly wants to know if there is a reason for all the activity, for sending cards, for giving and receiving gifts, or is it just something controlled by a big eastern syndicate, as Lucy suggests. What he really wants to know is the answer to the existential question asked at some point by everyone, i.e. is there any meaning at all for what I do?

I have to hand it to Charles Schulz for expressing some very profound truths very simply. Linus' response to Charlie's question, telling the Christmas story from Matthew's Gospel, does not, in itself, solve Charlie's problem. The function of religious faith is not to provide easy answers to hard questions. Instead, in the best tradition of pastoral care and theology, what Linus does is infuse Charlie with the impetus to go forth into the night to discover the meaning of Christmas for himself.

In the final scene, as I'm sure you remember, the other children gather round Charlie's little tree, remove the decorations from Snoopy's house, and "create" a fuller expression of a Christmas Tree. Linus says, "Maybe it just needs a little love," and then he wraps its trunk in his most prized possession, his blanket. It's the Gift of the Magi, and his action takes him beyond merely restating the Christmas story to enacting it. If we take the scrawny tree to represent Charlie Brown, the one kid who stands apart from all the rest, who, despite his best efforts, never seems to attain social acceptability, Linus' "diagnosis" takes us to the heart of the story.

Charlie doesn't need involvement. Like his little tree, he needs love, but he doesn't know it yet. Determined to not allow commercialism to ruin his Christmas, he places a decoration on the tree, it falls over with the weight, and he accuses himself of being incapable of doing anything of value. Charlie is still held captive by his feelings of being unacceptable. He needs what we all do, to experience appreciation for his unique perspective and contributions. He needs the affirmation of his community. He needs to hear, "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown," in order to raise his voice in the chorus of others without shame.

Charlie Brown is us. Not just the disadvantaged or disabled, the elderly or children, but all of us. He is the voice within that says, "see me, feel me, touch me, heal me." John Lennon and, by the way, Dr. Bob Z from Pink Hats, are right. All you need is love.

(Creative Commons image by manymeez via Flickr)

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