Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Grinch in Me

Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas! tells the story of an impossibly bitter mad man who hates everything nice, including and especially Christmas. Fueled by his hate, he commits his resources to stop Christmas from coming. On the night of Christmas Eve, he slinks through Whoville and steals every material symbol of  Christmas. Despite the apparent impossibility of the job, the Grinch's heist is successful.

On the dawn of Christmas morning, just when the Grinch thinks he has succeeded, he sees that he has failed. The sound of singing down in Whoville signifies that Christmas came without gifts. Indeed, it came without packages, boxes or bags. Despite the Grinch's machinations, Christmas came just the same!

After comprehending the depth of his error, the Grinch experiences a miraculous conversion. His heart, which was previously two sizes too small, triples in size. With this new strength, the Grinch miraculously lifts the heaviest sleigh in the world over his head (saving a little girl in the process) and happily goes down into Whoville to return the stolen gifts. Celebrations ensue and the Grinch carves the roast beast. Everyone is happy.

I'm interested in this story because I think it has a lot to say about the banality of evil and the process of conversion. I freely admit that there is a bit of Grinchiness in me, and I suggest that Grinch's feelings are simply an extreme portrayal of not-so-uncommon cynicism. I also believe that the miracle of the Grinch's conversion is not simply the realization of his error, but his humility to openly recognize and move beyond his past mistakes.

Why was the Grinch bitter in the first place?
As far as I know, Dr. Seuss never tells us about the Grinch's origin. Based on my interpretation of the Grinch's actions, I offer the following: Perhaps the Grinch held an overly cynical view of human nature and was critical of selfish, consumptive practices. Perhaps the Grinch loathed the Whos in Whoville because he thought that they were a bunch of hypocritical, self-serving, self-righteous consumerist fakes. Perhaps he built his hate toward the Whos gradually, with one judgment and one critical remark at a time, until he had constructed a monolithic monument to their guilt and corruption.

Perhaps the Grinch lived among the Whos until his loathing became too large to be contained within the town, which prompted him to take up residence in the solitude of the mountain. And yet, even in the mountain, the ignorant living of the Whos in Whoville plagued him like a  stubborn rash that refused to heal, and that perplexingly constituted who he was. He was not free. He was bound to the Whos, who gave him his identity as "Anti-Who."

Why was the Grinch wrong?
The Grinch erred because he grossly misjudged the Whos in Whoville. Having focused on their consumptive and self-serving flaws, he built a biased, one-sided view of the Whos. He chose to believe that they were reducible to their love of objects. He only saw the negative. The Grinch was like the traveler who, when it was dry, complained about the dust, and when it rained, complained about being wet. The Grinch's skewed vision that failed to see anything but consumption in Whoville led him to the erroneous conclusion that Christmas was only about material things.

How did the Grinch respond? 
When the Grinch's heart tripled in size, he acted immediately without fear of humiliation. After lifting the sleigh, he rode down into Whoville and returned the gifts he had stolen. Think of that! The Grinch had just performed what was likely the most comprehensive and complex heist in the history of Whoville, and then, the next morning, he returned everything. He rode into the very town which he previously sought to destroy. With penitence and caring he faced the people he had cursed and criticized. Most significantly (to a prideful heart like me), he recognized his past mistakes openly, publicly and without holding back. And he did so REJOICING!

I think the story of Scrooge is a little better in this regard. These stories are so similar, so allow me a brief tangent. Think of it! On Christmas day, Scrooge did not quietly enter the streets, hoping that others would not see how much he had changed. He ran through the streets like a younger man, shouting praises and blessing others as he went! Rather than concealing his new heart, he held it up for all to witness. And as the story goes, all did witness that Scrooge was a new man.

Returning to the Grinch, we see that the Grinch did not sheepishly return to Whoville, but instead became integrally involved in the Christmas celebrations. At the end of the story we are told that he even took the honor of carving the roast beast. This is not passive or partial conversion. This is an active and wholehearted turn, resulting in the most pure kind of freedom.

What if the Grinch tried keeping his feelings a secret?
The New Testament teaches that "the truth will set you free," but clearly truth here refers to something more than just knowledge. When the Grinch saw the error of his ways, he felt immediately strengthened and liberated. However, that freedom remained only because the Grinch embraced the truth he had received by returning to people in humility and love. In other words, the truth will set you free, but only if you accept it with a humble heart that acts openly without hiding. Had the Grinch tried to hide his change of heart, he surely would have lost the feeling and returned to bondage. In the end, the purest freedom can't be had without a certain acceptance that you were wrong and it doesn't matter if everyone knows it.

So what?
The good news is that this terrifying experience is worth it. I said that I have a bit of Grinchiness in me, and that is true. I often entertain cynical thoughts and build criticisms of others, and I am terrified of humiliation. I have a difficult time accepting my own flaws, and thus have a difficult time moving past them. At the same time, I can say with perfect sincerity that I have, at times, experienced wholehearted, open and humiliating change. In my best moments, I have owned my wrongness and rejoiced in my rebirth. I can also say in perfect sincerity that in these moments, I have never felt more free, more light, or more happy. This is how humans (and Grinches) are made to live.

My personal resolution this year is to own up to my faults when truth reveals them. I hope to live more openly, with less secrets and more humility. In my experience, that's where happiness and freedom lie. That's what I want this year and every year. Here's to the reborn, free Grinch!

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