It was my 33rd year of life and the 6th year of my priesthood. As I have related elsewhere, I had suffered a nervous breakdown that required a week in the hospital and a month off to recuperate. What drove me to that point was being asked to take an assignment I really wasn’t ready for. I was asked to pastor a parish that was in serious financial trouble. The stress nearly finished me.
Invincible? I was a young priest at the time, still emerging from my “invincible” stage when I thought I could do anything. I guess it’s pretty common for men in their twenties to think they can handle anything. During those years, opinions are strong, dreams are still vivid, and hard experience has not always taught its tough lessons yet.
So the young priest had said “yes” to the assignment, even though I had reservations. Soon enough, the panic attacks came, followed by waves of depression, and days when I could barely come out of my room. A week in the hospital for evaluation, a month off to recuperate, and years of good spiritual direction, psychotherapy, and the Sacraments have been God’s way of restoring me to health.
Somewhere in the early stages of all this, I saw the movie Toy Story. And right away, I knew I was Buzz Lightyear. Buzz begins the movie as a brash, would-be hero and savior of the planet. Buzz Lightyear’s tagline is, “To infinity … and beyond!” The only problem is that he seems to have no idea that he is just a toy. He actually thinks he has come from a distant planet to save Earth. He often radios to the mother ship and, hearing nothing, concludes she must be just out of range.
At a critical point in the movie, it begins to dawn on Buzz that he is just a toy and may not be able to save the day. He struggles with this realization and resists it. He tries to leap to the rescue, not knowing he can’t actually fly, and falls from the second floor breaking off his arm (see the second video below). Suddenly, Buzz realizes he’s just a toy, that all his boasting was based on an illusion. He then sinks into a major depression, his sense of himself destroyed.
But God wasn’t done with Buzz Lightyear. In the end, Buzz does save the day, by simply being what he was made to be: a toy. One of the kids in the neighborhood takes him up and attaches a rocket to him. In the end that enables Buzz to fly and save the day at a critical moment. And though the boy meant the rocket to cause harm, God meant it for good. The humiliation Buzz suffered enabled him to conquer his pride and made him able to save the day.
The lesson of the movie is a critical one and certainly the lesson I learned in my own mid-life crisis. And the lesson is that our greatness does not come from our own self-inflated notions, but from God. And God does not need us to pretend to be something we are not. What He needs is for us to be exactly what He made us to be. And it is often in our weakness that He is able to do His greatest work.
Similarly, I have come to realize that I am but a man. I have certain gifts and lack others. Certain doors are open to me and others are not. But when I accept that and come to depend on God to fashion and use me according to His will, then great things are possible. If we go on living in sinful illusion and grandeur, we miss our true calling and place in God’s kingdom. Ultimately, each of us must come to discover the man or woman that God created us to be. That is our true greatness. It is often in our weaknesses and humiliations that we learn this best.
All this from a cartoon.
Here is the clip from Toy Story where Buzz discovers he is just a toy:
And here is the scene where Buzz saves the day, reuniting Woody and himself with Andy, the young boy who loves them. But his ability to do this was made possible because another child had strapped a rocket to him. That child had misused him. But in accepting this humiliation, Buzz found his greatness and saved the day. He did so not by his false pride, but by the very thing that humiliated him. In his weakness and by accepting that he was powerless (for toys do not have power of their own) he became strong and received his ability to go sailing once more.