The Charlie Brown in Each of Us
Embracing Faithfulness in the Face of Overwhelming Angst
When I hear the opening notes of “Christmas Time Is Here” played by the brilliant Vince Guaraldi, I know it is Christmas. I cannot remember a Christmas without A Charlie Brown Christmas and that amazing soundtrack. The special itself is four years older than I, so it has always existed for me. What makes it so special and why does it resonate with me? Using actual children for the voices of children was a rarity in 1965, but it adds to the authenticity of the story. Add in the Guaraldi Trio jazz soundtrack and we can see the genius of Charles Schulz at its best. The soundtrack transforms an otherwise sad tale in which we might find pity into a melancholy critique of capitalist consumerism (all brought to us somewhat ironically by Dolly Madison). The soundtrack alters how we experience the story and the characters. Without the soundtrack, we would find Charlie Brown and Linus rather sad, according to Kevin Nye.
But the deep strength of the special is the Peanuts characters themselves. Schulz holds up a mirror to humanity and shows the multifaceted complexity of modern wealthy western human beings. We are walking contradictions seeking to be entertained yet rooting for the anti entertainment. Schulz was a genius, and he knew we would see ourselves in each character.
We all want to be Snoopy; cool, aloof, and unflappably confident. But deep down, most of us feel more like Charlie Brown as we muddle through life feeling inadequate and lost. We may act with the bravado of Lucy Van Pelt and the demand of what we have coming to us of Sally Brown. But we cannot escape our inevitable inward look at feelings of imposter syndrome and fear that our fellow Charlie Browns will realize that we are imposters. We all feel lost and unable to grasp the hope and joy we know we should feel. We want to be Snoopy, but we keep finding ourselves as Charlie Brown.
The big secret is that while Linus tells us the Christmas story through the nativity on the Gospel of Luke, Charlie Brown makes the practical connection of the importance of recognizing our finitude. When Charlie Brown rushes out with wide starry eyes to find a Christmas tree, he is filled with optimism and a strangely warmed heart. When he and Linus reach the Christmas tree lot, the reality of falsity hits them in waves. Linus keeps reminded Charlie Brown what type of tree the other children wanted, but Charlie will have none of it. The hollow knock of the aluminum trees and the flashiness of the trees are contrasted by the slow pan to a small natural tree. Linus asks, “do they still make wooden Christmas trees?”
Charlie Brown refuses to veer from the path he has chosen. In the words of Aaron Simmons, this is a moment of faith as defined as risk with direction. Charlie Brown sees the natural and somewhat shabby tree as worthy of his finitude. His faith is met with complaint, derision, and scorn. But Charlie Brown is determined that the tree he chose will be a wonderful tree. So he takes the tree home and places a single ornament from Snoopy’s first place light show onto the tree and it bends over such that Charlie believes he killed the tree for good.
Then we get the scene where I believe Schulz shows us the truth that we all feel like Charlie Brown. The other children show up and work as a team to decorate the tree. It becomes a beautiful tree because everyone recognized the value of Charlie Brown’s choice. His faith is ultimately rewarded, as the tree proves to be worthy of everyone’s finitude. The children all saw Charlie Brown in themselves as they went from telling him he had no value to proclaiming the goodness of the tree.
If we are not careful, our recognition of the Charlie Brown in us can get stuck on the melancholy self-criticism. Instead, when we see the Charlie Brown in us, we should see his faith and find those things which are worthy of our finitude. Yes, we all have Charlie Brown inside of us, but that is a good thing. Charlie Brown wants to see the good in everyone and he desires to share that with his friends. Charlie Brown understands the risk within every decision he makes, but like any good existentialist, he decides and lives into decisions. Faithfulness is about making decisions, living in those decisions, and embracing the risk with direction that we embrace.
For more on the idea of risk with direction as faith, check out Aaron Simmons' excellent Camping with Kierkegaard.