It’s the story about how a big green meanie called “The Grinch” (with the aid of his hapless pet dog), tries to ruin Christmas for the townsfolk of “Whoville” by stealing all their presents, decorations, Christmas turkey, and other goodies.
He eventually succeeds in his effort, but whaddya know, on Christmas morning the townsfolk (little critters known as “Whos”) celebrate Christmas anyway in joyful song, completely unphased by the loss of their stuff.
The Grinch is so moved by seeing this, his heart expands like crazy and he gives back all the stuff he stole. The story ends with the Grinch joining the Whos for a joyous Christmas feast.
The moral of the story being, the point of Christmas is not the “stuff,” but something far deeper and meaningful.
There’s a very similar moral in the equally wonderful 1965 Christmas TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (Seems like the two shows were made only a few months apart. Coincidence?)
Charlie Brown is tasked by the gang to go buy a Christmas tree for the gang’s clubhouse. When he and Linus get to the Christmas tree store, they notice that all the trees are fake, made with plastic. There’s only one real tree in the store, but it’s short and gnarly. Charlie Brown buys it anyway, because he wants his tree to be real, no matter how imperfect.
When the rest of the gang see what he did, they are furious (“You blockhead!”). But then Linus says something profound about the real meaning of Christmas, and the gang’s eyes are opened, and we get a happy ending with everyone singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
What both of these movies give us is deep insight about the human condition and the human heart.
In our modern worldview, it’s really easy to get it backwards. We assume meaning comes out of the external symbol (the presents in the case of the Grinch and the tree for Charlie) and enters our inner world. But that’s false. The truth is the reverse: meaning comes from our inner world and goes out.
Simply put, meaning is not in the thing itself. It is in us.
This explains a lot. It explains, for one, why different people find different things so meaningful: why some people find intrinsic motivation from analyzing stock tickers, and some people find it from planning parties, and others find it from saving sea turtles.
It also explains why some of us can love our professions so much that we turn them into games that we play in our off time – even if the rest of us can’t understand it. And most importantly, it explains why, no matter how challenging and daunting, bleak and scary things get, we, as humans, will always find meaning in the midst of it all.
Take away the things we normally find meaningful, and we’ll make meaning out of new things.
The meaning was never in the things; it was always in us.