Last week my wife and I re-watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – the original Chuck Jones cartoon, not the later remakes. As we talked about it, I realized that that Christmas special, and the original book, are a great depiction of eudaimonism – perhaps even in a Confucian form.
For anyone not familiar with this celebrated children’s story, the Grinch – an intelligent green humanoid creature – is incensed by the Christmas celebration of the small humanlike Whos who live down below him. He is irritated by all the details of their celebrating – the stockings, the feasting, and above all by the noise of their instruments and singing. So he disguises himself as Santa Claus to steal all the trappings of Christmas – the trees, the presents – and delights in the knowledge that the Whos will be disappointed and miserable when they find they cannot celebrate Christmas. But on Christmas morning, he finds that the Whos continue to sing and celebrate Christmas as usual, and he has a literal change of heart (“his heart grew three sizes”). The Grinch finally joins in the Whos’ celebrations – into which he is welcomed.
My wife pointed out that the story is relatively unusual in that no external force provokes this change of heart: there are no Ghosts of Christmas Past pushing the Grinch along, nor even a reversal of fortune in his own life (à la Sullivan’s Travels – a movie worthy of its own post some other time). It is not even empathy or compassion that provokes the change: the Grinch sees little Cindy Lou Who distraught over what he is doing, and in the cartoon even has a brief qualm about it, but his resolve strengthens and he lies to Cindy Lou so he can carry on with his plan. Instead the Grinch comes to his realization entirely by watching others’ virtuous behaviour and learning from it. They don’t try to convince him; they don’t even notice him. The realization is entirely his own.
The content of the Grinch’s discovery is expressed as: “‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!'” The Grinch, it seems, is finding the true meaning of Christmas. But unlike in A Charlie Brown Christmas, this meaning has no Christian content mentioned or even alluded: no baby Jesus, no quotations from Luke. The Whos’ Christmas resonates with me, as a non-Christian who still celebrates Christmas as a North American. The point is in the feasting, the ritual, the music, the coming together as a family and a community. For these, the Whos need none of the material goods that the Grinch is capable of stealing; they need the external goods of community, but not those of wealth. As far as the story is concerned, that ritual coming together is the true meaning of Christmas – a meaning of which Confucius would approve.
And the Grinch learns that, by not celebrating Christmas, he is missing out. The Whos’ celebrations have a zest, a cultivated joy, that enhances the life of those who participate in it. So too they cultivate a kindness and a love for the community with which one shares the rituals. When he joins in the celebration, the Grinch becomes a better and happier person – more flourishing, more eudaimonic.
We can put the Grinch’s relation to Christmas into perspective by contrasting it to a very different kind of negative relation to Christmas, one taken for much better reasons. The people most frequently opposed to public displays of Christmas in North America tend to be not atheists but Jews – a fact that makes good sense, and not only because there is a history of persecution of Jews around Christmastime. For, quite the opposite of a Grinch-like hostility to rituals and feasts, Jews have lovely rituals of their own, which can be even better. Jews can easily come together, Who-like, at Passover or Purim or Sukkot – and so they don’t need Christmas. Most of the rest of us from post-Christian cultures do – including a Buddhist like me, who is not part of a Buddhist community. (And even if I joined one, I could not feel the same emotional associations to the likes of Vesak.)
The solitary Grinch has no such rituals that could serve the function of Christmas. Nor does he have any history of being persecuted. Yet he rages against Christmas to the point of attempting to sabotage others’ enjoyment of it, to his own detriment. This behaviour raises an important question for eudaimonists: if being virtuous does make our lives better, why don’t we just do it? The story explicitly requests that we not ask why the Grinch hates Christmas (“no one quite knows the reason”) – thus treating the Grinch as literally a cartoon villain, with no real motivation. And yet the narrated story belies its own denial of his motivations. It mentions that the Grinch’s “heart was too small” – he had not developed his connection with other beings. It clearly notes his being bothered by the noise. That latter is relatable, as the kids say.
And – to me this is the crucial point, one relatable in its own way – the Grinch takes a malicious pleasure in imagining the Whos’ suffering. Their celebrations have annoyed him, and so he wants to punish them, make them suffer even more than he has. That drive for increasing punishment and revenge is something deeply human; its explanation is likely evolutionary, since we can observe it in chimps too. Gandhi may or may not have said that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” But the striking point to me is that even “an eye for an eye” – the brutal retaliation to violence with equal violence, perpetuating a cycle – was itself introduced, in the Hammurabic Code and in Exodus, as a limitation on revenge and punishment: one should not respond to wrongdoing with a punishment greater than the original wrong. The striking but not surprising thing is that these ancient law codes found the need to limit punishment thus: for, like the Grinch, humans have always been all too naturally tempted to respond to perceived wrongdoing with even greater wrongdoing. In this, the cartoon monster of the Grinch is all too human.
But the Grinch is also human in his change of heart. We humans can learn to see the ways our ingrained behaviours are self-undermining and lead us astray, and we can learn to do better. Sometimes those behaviours are ingrained so deeply that fighting them takes great strain and effort, considerably more than is involved in the Grinch’s momentary conversion. Yet we are still capable of doing it – of learning to be better in a way that improves our own lives. Confucius, for his part, would tell us that rituals like Christmas and Passover are crucial to that process of learning. Rituals are by their nature repeated – and that repetition can get us into the habit of being good.
Interesting, thank you.
I have a friend who had the interesting experience of watching the Grinch cartoon movie with a Tibetan lama who had come to North America for the first time — speaking no English and not knowing the culture. The Tibetan lama could roughly follow along with the cartoon’s plot by watching the pictures. At the end, the lama pointed to the Grinch and asked my friend, “Is that Jesus Christ?” My friend thought that very funny and surprising — until he reflected on the story of Milarepa — who practiced for years in caves in high mountains and was even reported to have his skin turn green from a diet of nettles. Milarepa certainly transformed himself and grew his heart by many sizes.
So, I think your insight is not far off.
That’s a great story, Jim. I seem to remember you might have told it to me once before, years ago – but it’s entirely appropriate here!
I have always been a tremendous fan of the Chuck Jones Grinch, and just re-watched it this year with my family. It is a striking work of art on a number of levels. It is notable that later adaptations of the story have seen the need to expand on it in order to account for the Grinch’s sour attitude — I believe at least one of the films actually does give him a persecution back-story. But the original, which raises and then suspends the question, is simpler and more compelling. In particular, the symmetry of the Grinch’s irritation and his epiphany is important. Early on, as he thinks about “all the noise, noise, noise, noise,” his sour meditation culminates in his anticipation of the Whos gathering together to sing: “And then, they’ll do something I hate most of all,” he says, and it is the singing which finally makes him say “I must stop the whole thing!” It is the joyful singing of the Whos which drives home the point that Christmas has still come despite the Grinch’s night-long act of theft; that “somehow or other, it came just the same.” The Grinch expects to hear “all the Whos down in Whoville […] all cry Boo-hoo!,” and says, “That’s a noise … that I simply must hear,” but when he realizes the sound he hears coming up from below is the same song he hears every year, he is first dismayed, then baffled, then suddenly — as it were having solved the koan — enlightened.
Eileen K said:
Oh my gawd you’re right.