Christmas, the Grinch, Tocqueville and a Personal Insight




There is something about the holidays that intensifies the recluse nature in me.  I find the holidays to be annoying, so I would rather hide for a few weeks and wait for it to be over.  I know, I can already hear your response, “Why are you such a Grinch?”  Well, allow me to explain because it goes much deeper than being a Grinch.

The truth is is that the Grinch story doesn’t fit my annoyance for the holidays because I am not opposed to others enjoying the holiday season and don’t want to steal Christmas for others (if you are having an amazing holiday with friends, family and loved ones… I’m genuinely happy for you).  Nor am I greedy, and I generally maintain a good attitude during the holidays.  And suggesting that I don’t like the holidays because my heart must be “two sizes too small” would only feed into my annoyance because that response is an incredibly shallow and misleading answer to what I see as a larger issue, personally and culturally.

I do remember a time when I loved the holidays.  It was a time of innocence and the love of playing with my sisters and cousins, and being showered with love by my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents.  It was a time where the little boy couldn’t wait for the magic of Santa to bring surprises and toys.  So as I walked my dog around the park today I asked myself when it began to turn for me.  When did the holidays turn into an annoyance that feels the same every year in the pit of my stomach?  The answer came to me fairly quickly, and strangely enough it came to me with the help of the wise words of Alexis de Tocqueville that I had recently read in his famous political work Democracy in America.

He begins the book by describing how he was going to trace the roots of the newly created American phenomenon by going back to the colonialist beginnings of America.  The analogy he used to describe why he was doing this struck a chord in me for a few reasons.  One was because I saw how I was going to use his insight to help me in the future as I try to further my understanding of various political and social phenomena here in America, and also because I saw how his insight could be used on a personal level.

Tocqueville’s insight:

After the birth of a human being his early years are obscurely spent in the toils or pleasures of childhood.  As he grows up the world receives him, when his manhood begins, and he enters into contact with his fellows.  He is then studied for the first time, and it is imagined that the germ of the vices and the virtues of his maturer years is then formed.  This, if I am not mistaken, is a great error.  We must begin higher up; we must watch the infant in its mother’s arms; we must see the first images which the external world casts upon the dark mirror of his mind; the first occurrences which he witnesses; we must hear the first words which awaken the sleeping powers of thought, and stand by his earliest efforts, if we would understand the prejudices, the habits, and the passions which will rule his life.  The entire man is, so to speak, to be seen in the cradle of the child.

This insight of Tocqueville is profound in that it was so far ahead of its time.  Nowadays there are psychologists who would conclude that understanding the childhood is part of their every day work with helping adults deal with their personal issues.  My own experience with doing inner work resonates perfectly with his insight.  But this type of critique in trying to understand an “entire man” seems to be scarcely found in our mainstream culture.  One example can be seen in the story of the Grinch.

I don’t want to get too caught up in over-analyzing the original Dr. Seuss story, but I think there is a connection to be made here for my purpose.  I do realize that it is just a children’s story and that it can be interpreted in various ways, by variously different people.  I also understand that the holidays mean many different things to many different people.  However, I also see this story being used all of the time by adults to explain another adult’s dislike or misinterpretation of the holidays.  So that leaves room for me to insert my own interpretation as well.

In the beginning of the story, Dr. Seuss explains how the Grinch hated Christmas, and then explicitly requests that the reader not ask why he hated Christmas and accept that it might be because “his head wasn’t screwed on just right,” or his “shoes were too tight,” but most likely it was because his heart was “two sizes too small.”  The story immediately perpetrates the great error in understanding people by suggesting that we should just accept that the Grinch was an adult with a heart that was “two sizes too small” without understanding any of the social conditions of his youth that may have lead to his contracted heart.

The plot of the story then goes on to further explain that the Grinch simply hates Christmas because he is greedy and dislikes the materialistic nature of Christmas.  And only upon learning that the spirit of Christmas doesn’t depend on material things does he begin to learn about the joy, love and blessings of Christmas – which then results in his heart growing three sizes in one day after 83 years of being “two sizes too small”.  If only it were so simple to understand how to cure a contracted heart.

To go beyond the shallow diagnosis of why the Grinch disliked his society and the holidays would require people to “begin higher up”, as Tocqueville suggested, and first “watch the infant in its mother’s arms” and then try to understand “the first images which the external world casts upon the dark mirror of his mind [and] the first occurrences which he witnesses” and those throughout the rest of his life because all of these things work to create “the entire man.”

In anthropological speak this phenomenon is called enculturation.  Or in other words, his heart didn’t just suddenly become “two sizes too small” later in his adulthood; his prejudices, habits and dislike of society and the holidays began to take form as the child Grinch experienced living in his external world.  By suggesting that his heart was too small without any meaningful understanding of why, and that it is as simple as just understanding the true spirit of Christmas that can cure a contracted heart spreads a dangerously false message.

I’m going to bring back my personal experience to explain why I feel it is a dangerous message.  In the past when I would express my dislike for the holidays the quick answer from a wide assortment of friends, family and co-workers was that I was just a Grinch.  Although, a few of the people that I expressed this with would agree and belly up to the bar with me to share our “Grinchy attitude” together.  But, the issue of being called a Grinch is the message that it sends to the people who may not like the holidays, for whatever their reasons (and there are a lot of them!).  It’s a message that deeply alienates a person for not following along with others.

Take a look at the message that the Grinch story tells:  If you don’t like Christmas it is just because “your head is not screwed on right”, or “your shoes are too tight”, or your “heart is too small.”  What could be more alienating than this?  I can remember how I felt on a few past occasions when somebody, without really thinking about what they were doing, would throw out the stop being a Grinch line.  It only intensified the dislike for the holidays for me and the people who said such things.  I couldn’t articulate why that was so in the past.  And how much worse could it be that the story even suggests to not go deeper into trying to understand the real reasons for why a person may dislike the holidays?  I would never have been able to even begin understanding why I disliked the holidays had I not dug a little deeper.

Today, on my walk, I began to see the beginnings of my dislike and annoyance for the holidays.   Like I said earlier, there was a time when I was a very young boy with nothing but unconditional love and curiosity in my heart.  I remember it vividly.  The holidays were so exciting.  Then it all came tumbling down when my family broke apart.  Like many children of the 80’s to the present, I am a part of the broken family era where divorce and family feuds are as common as the liquor stores and bars of America.

At such a young age the crucial things that would keep me appreciating the joy and blessings of the holiday season were squashed; I was left wondering why I no longer saw one set of aunts, uncles and cousins verses the others; and I was left wondering why my family story was so different than the ones being told in books, TV shows and movies.  It was the beginning of my heart contracting to protect itself from the broken and feuding external world; it was the beginning of the time where I decided I didn’t need anybody in this world because it was much safer to go it alone; and it was the beginning of my dislike for the holidays.

Those are all personal issues that resulted in my own reasons for not liking the holidays.  They are things that I am already dealing with in my own private way.  And they are things that I don’t hold against and blame any of my family members for happening.  But here is where the cultural stories, like the Grinch, enter into the equation to amplify my reasons for disliking the holidays.  After my family went through the divorce and family feud stages we went on as best as we could.  Holidays were never the same for me though.  It turned into a little boy wondering why his world didn’t match the stories of Christmas that were being told by his culture.  And what I am just now realizing is that this experience was the beginning of my distrust for people and the stories that were constantly told about how it was supposed to be.

Here I was as a young boy who had a traumatic experience of watching his family break apart, and in a very short period of time we no longer resembled the perfect little cultural stories that are told in books, TV shows and movies.  So in the following years the stories all started to become so fake to me.  I recognized that my family loved me and I loved seeing them during these times too, but the pretense for why we only gathered once or twice a year was shallow to me.  And the worst part about it was that as I expressed my dislike for it, in a young boys way, the cultural stories would then work to alienate me even more by making me feel like there was something wrong with me – my heart must have been too small, or maybe it was my head that was not screwed on right.

And that leads me to the other danger that the message of the story of the Grinch tells a person: that the antidote to a personal issue is as simple as just opening up your heart to let the spirit of Christmas come rushing in.  I’m calling bullshit on that one.  This is just another example of a long list of Lifetime TV-like specials that suggest life’s problems can be fixed in a half hour time slot, minus the commercials, with simplistic antidotes.

I personally know that it is very hard work, and takes enormous courage and support, to break down the walls that have been built up to protect yourself from a chaotic and broken world.  I was lucky enough to have found that support and the courage to dig deep down into the painful memories that resulted in my heart contracting in the first place.  I’ve been doing this on and off for about 6 years now, and I still struggle to completely understand what it all means.  Imagine now a person who has no support and fails to find the happiness, love and joy of the Christmas spirit as the story’s antidote suggests.  The result is likely to be more alienation and more contraction of the heart.

Also, try to imagine, if you can, all of the other endless stories of people who don’t live in the perfect towns of Whosville with caring family, neighbors and friends who so perfectly understand what the holidays are supposed to be all about.  My parents did the best they could after everything had changed.  I have much love and respect for them for doing everything they could to patch up the family and move on.  But others aren’t so lucky as me and live in much worse situations than I experienced – many live amongst families who are stressed out, deeply in debt, down and out, over-worked and struggling to get by.  Well, by now you should start to see the point I am trying to make:  that the mainstream cultural stories being told about Christmas and the hoards of people who peddle these shallow “happy go lucky” stories are only deepening the alienation of those who dislike the holiday season, much less the rest of the other 350 days of the year.

The last part about dealing with the other 350 days of the year makes me want to expand this essay to touch on the other areas where I see shallow stories, with simplistic antidotes, being spread to address complex issues.  But I won’t go there today, and will save this expansion for another day.  However, I do want to say that I can’t help but see the correlation with people thinking that the mass school shootings could have been stopped with either more gun control, or more people with guns.

I kind of think these folks tend to use the simplistic Grinch-like stories the most to wash away their struggle to understand the deeper realities of how a human came to be.  If only more could take a deeper approach to understanding the “entire man”, as Tocqueville did, we might begin to understand why a person may dislike the holidays, or worse, turn into a monster and kill innocent people.  Instead it is more likely that people will continue to be alienated by the cultural stories and those who choose to peddle such simplistic stories, like the Grinch, to understand complex social issues.

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