When I first entered the theater, it was pitch dark. Outside the sun had been shining brightly, at its apex on an azure winter day. I waited inside the threshold for either my vision to adjust or to be rescued by one of the fifteen fourth-graders I was there to help supervise. Eventually one of my favorites, an eight or nine-year-old who could have passed for Cindy Lou in her own right, entered through the double doors and led me blindly back to the group.
All was well in the theater. The children from the elementary school, who together numbered close to a hundred, were milling around but were well-behaved enough. Ron Howard’s 2000 adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas—the weird one—played across the projector screen. Jim Carrey, dressed up as the Grinch, was in the middle of Stealing Christmas. After realizing I had nothing left to do, I slouched over onto the seat next to me and watched the Grinch vacuum up presents into a gigantic lumpy hose reminiscent of the plastic play tunnels children crawl through during gymnastics class.
This film, which came out when I was ten years old, was panned by critics for being too dark in tone and deviating too much from the source material. The last time I watched it I must have been thirteen, and if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing The Grinch anytime recently, let me reassure you—it is completely insane. Most of the movie is literally dark in terms of color scheme and lighting. The Grinch, of course, lives in his mungy cave on Mt. Crumpit, but even the sets down in Whoville are scantly lit and carry a characteristic green tinge. The music, the pacing, and the way Jim Carrey interjects sardonic dialogue in between the original narration from Dr. Seuss present a disjointed, frantic viewing experience. Which, I suppose, is what it would be like if one were actually to attempt to steal Christmas.
This disheveled retelling of the film is how the holidays must feel for most of us, as opposed to the computer-animated 2018 version, which was criticized for not deviating enough from the source material, or the 1966 cartoon version which I remember from childhood—where the Grinch was more comic than villain, where all was too friendly and the songs sung by the Whos resolved perfectly at their tonic. Our experience as adults doesn’t coalesce into a neat ending like the cartoon does. The digestion and sense-making of our metaphysical experience will rarely produce a neat, clean message, and it is for this reason that I appreciate the insanity in the 2000 version of The Grinch.
The things that Jim Carrey does in this movie are obscene and outrageous. He builds a pseudo-Delorean Christmas sleigh out of the garbage that has been pneumatically chuted to the dump below his home on the mountain. He steals a bottle of liquor from an old man and sprays it out of his mouth to ignite, flamethrower-style, the main Christmas tree in the center of Whoville. And after he is elected the Christmas “Cheermeister”—a lurid ceremony in which he is lifted onto a Christmas throne, paraded through town and force-fed large quantities of homemade fudge—the Grinch (rightly) freaks out and condemns the avarice of the holiday. He’s relatable, in this moment, because he tells the truth. Then he shaves a line down the middle of the mayor’s head using an electric razor, grabs a sprig of mistletoe, holds it up to his ass, and instructs the onlookers in the crowd to “pucker up and kiss it, Whoville!” The whole thing feels nonsensical and nightmarish, a psychedelic, malfunctioning Disneyland ride.
My experiences in the weeks leading up to this screening had felt equally nonsensical. I had just gone through a breakup, or something of the sort, and wherever I looked in my own life there were more questions than answers. Without a partner to focus on, my own faults turned their heads quickly to stare me in the face. Images of us together, memories and impressions from our long relationship, and feelings of loss and foreboding persisted with no foreseeable chance of sorting-out, like coin banks. I struggle to believe in a coherent future, one where everything can find its right place and begin to make sense; especially with someone else. Things had been good in that relationship, despite having no resolution and no sense of order. I had been stealing Christmas. Dump-it to Crumpit. Everything in the hose.
Chief among these unresolved questions was my want (or lack thereof) for a family. I cannot blindly believe, though part of me desperately wants to, that getting married and having offspring and snatching up a piece of property will be the end of all my problems. If only it were so easy! But as far as I can tell, “buying in” banishes the chance for life to be meaningfully multifaceted, precludes the existence of a more complex, perfect reality.
In the climax of The Grinch, Cindy Lou Who’s father stands up to the mayor and, gathering up his family around him, valiantly asserts that he already has everything he needs for Christmas. The film appeals to an evolutionary trope; it is powerful because there’s truth in it. This is what we want to do as men, as creatures. And I, thirty-two-year-old male slouched with bad posture on my contorted arm, spilling into the seat next to me, had to wonder again: Is this it? To stand your ground with your partner, who you love with your entire heart, and your children, and maybe your dog; to show up and assert yourself and validate and affirm everything you have chosen to make your life about—could there be anything better?
The answer, of course, which crept back to me when the scene ended, is that a philosophy that accounts for and embraces all reality is better than one that boils down existence into simple axioms. A perspective that admits and considers all existence is the only way to unearth the ultimate truth, and the chance to find this is everything—even if the search is neverending, and even if you might come up empty-handed in the end.
In the framework of formal logic, and especially in the slippery realm of daily judgment, we can use certain linguistic operators to categorize our experience: “or,” “but,” and “and.” Some of these words engender more prejudice than others, and I want to make the case for “and” being the most appropriate mental shortcut out of these three operators. Everything that happens to us in the course of our days is worth our consideration and worth our time. It’s usually not possible to boil your life down to valid logical syllogisms, which is why the application of “but” or “or” in our thoughts is usually wrong.
“Either you’re with us or you’re against us.” This is a misapplication of the logical truism “P or not P,” which asserts that either a proposition is true or it is false. When I say “Either I am wearing pink pajamas or I am not wearing pink pajamas,” I am telling the truth. And I will always be telling the truth when I say something like this. Either it is Saturday, or it is not Saturday. This line of reasoning, this disjunctive “or,” can be easily twisted around to arbitrarily divide our reality. Either I achieve wealth or I die a pauper. Either I achieve this goal or I am nothing, and therefore so are the others who have failed to achieve it. This train of thought is dangerous. In the loose and sloppy way we apply logic to our lives, “or” creates imbalances, demands and ultimatums where there need be none. Either we recover our Christmas presents, or all is lost.
“But” is better, but not by much. It acknowledges the truth of one proposition then ultimately judges it inferior to another. “But” is the label that the righteous and the self-assured apply to the world. James is a good man, but ultimately his alcoholism has ruined him. The Grinch is a good character, but he is rotten overall. “But” is damning with faint praise.
The most inclusive operator, “and,” seems to represent reality the best. This is because it does not judge and it does not exclude contradiction. It is imperative to allow for the possibility of contradiction in our lives. About a year ago, I remember being exposed to David Foster Wallace’s far-reaching and multifaceted prose, specifically the essay “This is Water,” which not only echoed my feelings on suffering and tolerance but also flawlessly matched my dysphoric experiences waiting in the Vons checkout line. I soon learned about his problematic attitude towards women and the horrible things he had done to the women in his life: how he stalked his lover, how he threw a coffee table at her, how he pushed her from a moving car. This doesn’t make him either a prodigious writer or a perpetrator of domestic abuse; it doesn’t make him a talented author but ultimately a psychopath; it makes him both a genius and an asshole.
My current life reflects this operator. My job in special education is both intolerably stressful and indescribably wonderful. My past relationship was good in some ways and bad in others. It feels insane to even try and begin disentangling all these experiences, to give each part of my world a “like” or “dislike” in general. No scales of justice, tipping one way or the other, can ever summarize the whole vast smear of human life. Many, many times I have felt the ambivalence of emotional overload. When things are overwhelmingly bad, I cry. When things are overwhelmingly good, I cry. And when the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes, he clutches at his chest in agony. There’s more going on than good or bad.
Sitting in the theater, pretty heartbroken still, with a group of kids I consider my friends, watching the climax of Ron Howard’s 2000 adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which is one of the strangest, shittiest movies ever made—yet one that still invokes universal themes of family, gratitude, and love—I thought again of the monosyllabic operator “and,” which makes our sharp-edged existence tolerable and soft. Without the ability to take in and process contradiction, to hold in each hand and consider two completely conflicting things, I really think we would lose it.
As the peak of the movie played, I felt a very faint rumbling of a very deep emotion, the profoundest bass. As the Grinch hauled the sleigh back from over the cliffside in a heroic struggle, I thought of the biblical idea of salvation. I saw for a moment why, mythologically, we must have conceived of mankind as damned from inception—for the joy that electrifies us, and the untold ecstasy that this joy foretells, threatens to easily overwhelm and destroy us. We feel the oblivion of bliss every day; we feel shades of it in our smaller triumphs and revelations; we feel it watching a disabled girl sing and dance to the soundtrack of Frozen or Encanto; we feel it grappling with both the failures and small moments of perfection woven into the fabric of our relationships. We feel it watching The Grinch. Salvation, which may only be achieved in death, is something that we can conceive of but never really attain. It is the elusive, tangible, perfect reality that we chase after—it is the highest imaginable intensity that is simultaneous joy and desperation and which would obliterate us in the act of its deliverance.
The ability to hold within us emotions of opposite charge, to let them coexist in nonjudgment, is evidence of our capacity to feel the divine, a smaller version of the rapture that plays out in our everyday lives. Maybe things will only make sense completely when we die, when I die—but in the meantime we have a chance, a buffer, in the a priori way we take in experience. I am the Grinch, and this doesn’t mean that my ugliness overwhelms my ability to tell the truth. It means that I can accept the rude, or obscene, or petty, or violent parts of myself and still celebrate Christmas the next morning, without shame. It means that I can be an adult with relationship problems and still show up with grace and compassion to work with children. It means that every person is both good and bad, in turn; it means that there are setpieces in our minds that are dark and nightmarish and there are dazzling snowy mountain sunrises, too. It is because of the concerted effort to inspect and welcome and analyze everything that happens to us that we can do this. It is because of “and,” which reflects the dualistic way that things work at the highest level, in our imagined Heaven.
At the end of the movie, all the Whos sing their carols and the credits roll, and this ending is good enough for this particular iteration of the story. But in reality, the lights came back on and the popcorn got swept up and we all went back to the elementary school in the cold, where one by one the children got picked up, and I walked home alone in the dark: a gigantic fizzling out. Life moves on after the credits place a bookmark in time, after things seem to end, as it always will. We have no opportunity to make sense of it all before the next thing comes along in the flux. But we have a chance, if we ever try—if we are ever aware of it, if we ever welcome it—of conceiving something more, something divine.