What Buzz Lightyear Taught Me About Life

I was interviewed on National Public Radio last year regarding a blog post I had written a few years previously about the movie “Toy Story.” The link to the interview is at the bottom of this post. You may wish to skip my written remarks below and just go to the interview instead, as it incorporates most of my reflections.

There was a movie some years ago that most of you have probably seen called Toy Story. It had a profound impact on me, for it came out at a critical time in my life.

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 agreeing 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 in my “invincible” stage, when I thought I could do anything. I guess it’s fairly common for young men to think they can handle anything. During those years, opinions are strong, dreams are still vivid, and hard experiences have not yet taught their tough lessons.

So, this young priest said “yes” to the assignment, even though I had reservations. Soon enough, the panic attacks came, followed by waves of depression. There were 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 during the early stages of my recovery, I saw the movie Toy Story. Right away, I recognized myself in 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 a toy. He thinks he has come from a distant planet to save Earth. Buzz often radios to the mother ship and, hearing nothing, concludes that 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 really fly, and falls from the second floor breaking off his arm. Suddenly, Buzz realizes he’s just a toy, that all his boasting was based on an illusion. Buzz then sinks into depression, his sense of self 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 neighborhood kids, Sid, straps Buzz to a rocket, intending to launch him high in the air. In the end, that enables Buzz to “fly” and save the day at a critical moment. Although Sid meant Buzz’s launch to cause harm, God meant it for good. The humiliation Buzz suffered enabled him to conquer his pride; it 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 personal crisis. The lesson is that our greatness does not come from our inflated notions of our self but from God. God does not need or want us to pretend to be something we are not. He wants us to be exactly what He made us to be. It is often through our weakness that He is able to do His greatest work.

Just as Buzz comes to realize that he is just a toy, I have come to realize that I am but a man. I have certain gifts and lack others. Some doors are open to me and others are not. When I accept that and come to depend on God to fashion me and use me according to His will, great things are possible. If we go on living in sinful illusion, we miss our true calling and our proper 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 through our weaknesses and humiliations that we learn this best.

All this from a children’s movie!


Here also is the link to the 20-minute interview, with a transcript: