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Jack Skellington and the Search for Meaning

October 11, 2021 • De Pree Journal

You may have heard of the animated movie The Nightmare Before Christmas. If you’re anything like me, you’ve seen it many times! If not, The Nightmare Before Christmas follows the journey of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, as he struggles with feeling restless, unsatisfied, and exhausted in his work.

In the beginning of the film, we see that Jack Skellington is the best in his craft. He’s viewed as a strong leader by everyone in Halloweentown. However, on the inside Jack is struggling. He’s feeling unsatisfied with his work and questioning whether he should be doing something else with his life.

As he contemplates, he wanders into the forest and stumbles upon a door that leads him to Christmastown. Here, in this new land, Jack comes alive and is filled with intrigue. Excited with all that he’s seen, he goes back to the people of Halloweentown. He convinces them to join him in the mission of taking over Christmas this year. This involves the people of Halloweentown making toys, kidnapping Santa Clause, and Jack flying through the sky with skeletal “reindeer” to deliver presents around the world on Christmas Eve.

The problem is: Halloweentown only knows how to do Halloween. So, their decision to take on Christmas leads to chaos erupting as children receive gifts like dead bats and giant snakes in their stockings. After this unintentional calamity, Jack is shot down out of the sky by the military and lands in a graveyard. In this more familiar place, he laments about his failure but feels strangely invigorated and inspired. This experience brought him new ideas for next Halloween and helped him to realize that being the Pumpkin King was where he truly thrived.

As strange as it may sound, this film provides a great illustration of one’s search for purpose and meaning in their vocation. I believe there are two important lessons we can pull out of this story.

1. Our work cannot save us.

Jack Skellington became dissatisfied and felt unfulfilled because he was looking to find all of his meaning and identity in his work. His lament includes this line: “the fame and praise come year after year, does nothing for these empty tears.” Though Jack had been incredibly successful, the accolades were not ultimately satisfying. Doing his work based on the praise or expectations of other people left him feeling drained.

Maybe you have experienced the same thing. Maybe you have put your whole self into your work and even seen great successes, hoping to find a sense of significance or contentment. However, this has likely left you feeling drained and disheartened.

The problem for most of us is we can’t fill our longing for meaning with “more” – whatever that “more” may be. Continually searching for more passion projects or achievements in the hopes that they will bring joy and contentment might only contribute to feelings of restlessness or a lack of satisfaction. This is because our work was never meant to save us. As Michaela O’Donnell states in her book Make Work Matter, “though our work has deep and meaningful implications in the kingdom of God, our sense of significance can’t be reduced to what we do for work.”

We cannot find our meaning and purpose solely in what we do, because our deepest fulfillment can only be found in Christ.

We cannot find our meaning and purpose solely in what we do, because our deepest fulfillment can only be found in Christ. Framed this way, our work becomes an expression of meaning found in Christ, not the container for it.

Colossians 3:17 says, And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (NRSV). So, instead of seeking fulfillment in the work itself, God invites us to view our work as an act of worship and find our meaning in being beloved creations, made in the image of God.

2. Humans are designed for labor and leisure.

Though he seemed to be at the top of his game, Jack was feeling bogged down and bored with his predictable routine. He was constantly working without a break, as is evidenced by the Mayor of Halloweentown showing up to his door the day after Halloween to begin planning for the next year. This tiresome life without balance made him feel like he needed a drastic change, but in the end, a brief reprieve from his typical routine and constant labor was enough to bring him a new sense of inspiration and energy in his vocation.

Humans are not made to work without rest.

Humans are not made to work without rest. The Genesis story provides us with a model for a healthy pattern of labor. God created for six days and then rested on the seventh day. In the same manner, we are invited to model God’s rhythm of labor and leisure. Theologian Herman Bavinck reflected on this concept, highlighting that labor is a means, not a goal.1 Labor is an opportunity to serve others and sow goodness into the world. This means that labor is not a means in the sense that it only matters if goals are met, but the ultimate purpose of labor is to enter into rest and serve God. This relationship between labor and leisure is how humanity was created to live. While a person’s work can be an act of worship and service to God, humans were made for leisure and rest. Failure to take time away from laboring is to work against the way that we as humans were created to live and will only lead to burnout.

But that’s much easier said than done, right? There are so many things that keep us from rest. I think for many of us, it’s been ingrained in us that we must be productive and that taking a break equates to laziness. Perhaps we are also concerned, like Jack, about maintaining responsibilities and not letting down the people who are depending on us. Or maybe you’re doing work that serves and defends other people and fear that stepping away might impede your mission. Even with selfless intentions, constant labor is unsustainable. Whatever the situation, it’s helpful for us to recognize that by prioritizing rest, we are honoring God.

Jack Skellington provides a great illustration of the search for purpose and meaning in one’s vocation. His journey is one that many of us can resonate with. But the good news is, the restless feelings of dissatisfaction and exhaustion don’t have to overtake you. If you can relate with Jack’s struggle, it may be time to heed God’s invitation to rest. Perhaps a first step could be a Nightmare Before Christmas movie night with your loved ones! Be encouraged that no matter what work you are or aren’t doing, your meaning and significance can be found simply in being God’s beloved creation.

1 Bavinck, Herman. Essays on Religion, Science, and Society. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2013.

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