You won’t always stick the landing. Change is hard. It’s also inescapable. Growth, however, is optional.
Sometimes we choose change; sometimes it chooses us. And at times, it just yanks us by the hair, and drops us, kicking and screaming, into another place, job or life. Change has paid me a galaxy of visits, mostly when I wasn’t looking or planning on it. It’s nudged me in unexpected new directions — and thrown me directly into the deep end. Often, change was only a small part of the total package.
Even animated characters know a little bit about change. For nearly 25 years, Toy Story movies have boasted an evolving, merry band of comic toy misfits who just might make you forget they aren’t real. Chock full of psychological metaphors, Toy Story proves watching animated characters getting life lessons is a blast, though you might not know it from the tissues in my hand. That’s right, my friends, I cry at Pixar movies. In fact, I have a feeling that many of the characters in their movies are created specifically to suck out every emotion. Just add soul to the already heart grabbing assortment of beloved, remembered playthings, and you have the whole enchilada. You also have a nifty vehicle that both teaches kids and reminds adults of identifiable life lessons.
We can all remember our first day of school, though some of have to reach back a bit farther than others for that memory. When 5 year old Bonnie, Toy Story’s little owner of Woody, Buzz and the gang, faces her first day of kindergarten, she’s terrified. Hoping to make her scary first not her worst day ever, floppy cowboy Woody sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack, hoping he’ll make her feel less alone. When her arts and crafts were stolen, it could have been traumatizing — if Woody hadn’t fished a plastic spork out of the trash helping to create googly-eyed, new kindergarten bud, Forky. This funky little runner gains all the attributes of humanity, yet can never quite leave behind the cozy security of his trash beginnings.
Like most parents, Woody puts Bonnie’s well being ahead of his own rapidly changing life. While he desperately wants to be her ‘number one toy’ again, he can also see the crayon writing on the wall that he’ll soon be an afterthought in her world. Ironically, pipe cleaner and popcicle stick Forky totally gets how Woody feels. As literal trash, not feeling important has always been his gig!
“Well, you watch them grow up and become a full person. And then they leave. They go off and do things you’ll never see. Don’t get me wrong, you still feel good about it. But then somehow you find yourself, after all those years sitting in a closet feeling…” Woody
“Useless?” Forky Yeah.” Woody
“Your purpose fulfilled?” Forky
Listen closely and you can totally identify with Woody’s sadness and anxiety, hearing echoes of our own struggles with change. To every empty-nest parent, whose children don’t seem to need need them anymore, it strikes a painful chord. To every aging worker, feeling obsolete, and left behind in a rapidly, evolving techie world, it’s wincingly real. Like Woody, when faced with heavy life changes, we’re filled with questions. What do we do now? How do we feel when our own purpose, our ‘thing’, is winding down or disappearing before our eyes? What happens when our little world, where we knew every space and corner, begins to shrink? Are we still relevant?
Saying we just carve out something new, is way too glib. There’s nothing easy about change. Yet, it happens with — or without our permission. As we watch Woody amble along, anxious about the future and his place in it, we pain for him and his cowboy sized mid-life crisis. All we can do is hang on and observe him as he finds his own light-bulb moment; when purpose is no longer what it was imagined to be yet meaning can still be found.
“Sometimes change can be good.” BoPeep
Then there is Bo Peep. For years she was a literal light for her ‘boy’ Andy and his little sister, Molly, like most childhood things, was boxed up and given away. Fast forward to meet a very different Bo Peep. Having had to find her own way as an independent ‘woman’, she discovered for herself what lay beyond a child’s bedroom. (girl power!) She’s also learned to keep her feelings in check, including admission that she misses being loved by a child. Still, she joins with Woody and friends to match loveless toys with kids who need them. So intent on bringing others to their purpose, the motley bunch may not even realize they are still fulfilling theirs – to infinity and beyond.
Who knew toys could have existential crises? Old school, pull-string Woody, who already had to deal with competition inherent in the arrival of battery operated flash of Buzz Lightyear, takes his ‘parental’ responsibility painfully seriously. Forky tries to soothe his friend’s fearful angst with innocent compassion. And Bo Peep becomes, by necessity, a resourceful survivor. Every Toy Story movie is built with ‘human’ emotion, linking hi-jinks and laughter with fears of abandonment and self-worth. Like their human counterparts, helicopter ‘parents’ Woody and Buzz’ experience wincingly real pain as they watch kids move on, and out of their need for their favorite things. Ask every jobless person, empty nest parent, widowed or divorced spouse, who now lives alone, what it’s like to find new purpose. Change is hard. Full stop.
“Being there for a child is the most noble thing a toy can do.” Woody
As someone, let’s just say, who’s eligible for senior shopping hours, I often felt Woody’s displacement. My husband and I, partners in a PR and Ad firm, acutely felt the age shift in an industry where youth reigns and ‘experience’ was perceived more creaky than cool. Like every mom whose birdies have all flown the nest, I’ve had to smack myself more than a few times when I forget it’s not my place to run and ‘fix it’. The mommy torch was passed years ago to the loving, competent hands of my daughters and daughter-in-law. Like Woody, we to to see the ‘crayon writing on the wall’ and change with change.
In the time of COVID, everything is different. Many people will find themselves navigating new waters, new jobs, new ways of thinking and doing things. If our reaction is only fear, we lose our animation, our place in the current. Like Woody, you have choices; you always have choices. Having been laid off a few times in a volatile industry before opening my own agency, I know well about reinvention. I also knew no one was going to help me — but me and that attitude is everything. That’s not to say I was brilliant in any way, or that I always made perfect decisions. I’ve often been my own worst passive aggressive enemy when feeling left behind or a dusty relic. Not a good look.
“Be who you are right now”. BoPeep
“Because it’s all that I have left to do.” – Woody
I’ve had to remind myself of what I brought to each new nest, new vocation, new space that I transitioned to. The reams of artwork, writing, and awards from my professional creative life made a gentle exit less traumatic. The years, beautiful, hard, and cherished with the children who no longer animate my house but always my heart, sustain me. Memories that will continue to spool into the future with 6 precious grands remind me of life itself. The sudden loss of a husband, my fiercely loved, collector of actual toy soldiers, well, I haven’t quite licked that one yet. It’s a work in progress.
Maybe all the beloved Toy Story playthings, each with their own personalities and quirks, fulfilled their purposes – or not. The whole point is the journey and we can view our own more clearly through the lens of Woody’s often stumbling growth. In challenging times like these, our deepest fears become like the movie’s mutant Jack-in-the-box, popping with questions when we least expect them. Are we ‘essential? Would we be missed? Have we ‘missed’ our potential, our purpose? We all want to matter. And we have to remember that we do, even when the landscape shifts. The universe just finds another place for us.
We can’t control change; only how we handle it. Economy centered layoffs or demotions, illness, a divorce, death, even an empty nest all suck, really suck. I know – I’ve sampled the whole buffet table. At one point or another, most of us have felt displaced, invisible or discarded (even if we won’t admit it.) In the end, we have little choice but accept the arc of life. Things change but change is not the end; just a change of direction. A chance to find new relevance, new open doors. NO one is a lost toy.
“He’s not lost. Not anymore.” Buzz Lightyear
Woody had to learn tough lessons, as we all do. Holding on too tightly to those we love. Not letting go when it’s our turn. Celebrating the moment without expecting the next. ‘Adulting’ is hard. It makes us learn to be responsible, to sacrifice for someone else – and then let them go. The eternal ebb and flow of life becomes even more profound when seen in an animated character, one who surreptitiously reflects our own growth. Toy Story, sweet, comic and humanistic, is built to make us laugh and cry. It connects us painlessly to all the soul-searching, emotional growth we real, live people walk through every day. We find, in the traits and emotions of the enchanting, bumbling toys, the best of who we are and will become.
“You can’t teach this old toy new tricks”. Woody
“You’d be surprised.” BoPeep