Where do you find meaning? This is a big question. It may be THE big question. What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of living? You may not realize it, but this is the question of the Toy Story saga. Over three incredible movies, the characters of Toy Story are searching for meaning.
The toys, especially the two main characters, Woody and Buzz, at different times face existential crises searching for meaning as they come to grips with their own mortality. Their mortality is wrapped up in the life of their owner, Andy. In the first movie Buzz faces the reality of being a toy and not a Space Ranger. In the second movie Woody has to choose between “immortality” in a museum, or life with a kid who will eventually grow up. In the third movie all of the toys face their impending loss of purpose as Andy goes to college.
When Woody meets Buzz, Woody is a sure and determined leader of the toys. He knows his purpose. He has a laser focus as Andy’s favorite toy. When Buzz shows up his status is threatened. To make matters worse, Buzz has delusions of grandeur. Woody mocks Buzz because Buzz believes that he is a space ranger. He comes to Andy’s room convinced that he is on an alien planet, and must find and defeat the evil Zurg.
Buzz faces a crisis when he realizes that the storyline of his life isn’t real. It is just a storyline for a TV show designed to sell toys. He is one of thousands of Buzz Lightyears” that line supermarket aisles. It is Woody who convinces Buzz that his purpose is far grander than defeating Zurg.
“I can’t help anyone… I’m not a Space Ranger. I’m just a toy. A stupid, little insignificant toy,” says Buzz.
“Whoah, hey, wait a minute. Being a toy is a lot better than being a Space Ranger,” Woody exclaims.
“No, it is. Over in that house is a kid who thinks you’re the greatest. And it’s not because you’re a Space Ranger, pal. It’s because you’re a toy. You are his toy.”
Woody redefines Buzz and gives him purpose. No longer does his purpose revolve around catching the evil Zurg. Instead, it is to be with a boy. Toy Story ends with Woody and Buzz realizing something about their purpose. Woody is not defined by his status, and Buzz is not defined by his ‘job.’ They are both defined by their relationship to Andy, and to each other.
In Toy Story 2 it is Woody who has the crisis when he discovers that he is not just a toy, but that he is a collectible. His value is altered, and he is faced with a decision. He can define himself through Andy, where his value will inevitably deteriorate as Andy grows up and plays less with his toys; or he can define himself as a collectible and be a part of a museum forever.
Knowing that Andy will eventually “put him away,” he decides to go with immortality at the museum. Fearing that he has been kidnapped, Buzz and the other toys go on a perilous adventure to find him. Risking everything for the sake of their friend, they finally find Woody, and the following scene ensues:
We witness Woody’s change of heart when he is reminded of who he is. He is reminded of the mark that was placed on him by the one who loved him more than all. He is reminded of the love of his friends, and the fact that they were willing to risk everything for him.
Jesus, when speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John tells them this, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13, CEB). Jesus had a firm grasp on the transforming power of love. He said these things to the disciples when he knew that his time on earth was coming to a close. He says these things to them even while he knew that his path led to the cross. He told them they were his friends. He told them to love each as I have loved you. He told them there is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for one’s friends. Then he went out and did it.
That’s the kind of love that can transform hearts. That is the kind of love that can make people stop on their tracks and reconsider their path. Another way of putting it: It’s the kind of love that can cause you to repent, and believe that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Woody’s heart was transformed by the love of his friends. In all my time as a writer, pastor, and Christian, I don’t think I’ve ever convinced anyone to Christ. I don’t think I’ve ever persuaded anyone to repent. If I’ve done anything, I’ve loved them to Christ. If I have done anything, I have loved people to a deeper understanding of God’s love. I’ve written, preached, talked, teached, but nothing counts as much as the times that I have been a friend. I’m not sure I’ve ever laid my life down for a friend, but I have laid down my time. I have laid down my own vulnerability. I have laid down my compassion and kindness.
More importantly, when I have had moments of doubt. When I have questioned everything. When I have wondered aloud about my own purpose, it has never been a well-constructed argument that brought me back. It has been the time, care, kindness, and love of friends that has reminded me. There have been times when competing ideas of the purpose of my life have waged a war in my mind. Like anyone, I have had late nights wondering about where the value of my life may lie. There are times when I’ve been lost, but every time there was someone there to remind me to look down at the bottom of my foot, recall who and whose I am, and come back to my purpose: to love.