In Toy Story 3, the boy Andy is ready to go off to college. His room is being tidied, and his toys are about to be boxed up and stored in the attic. Then Mom makes a mistake and Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang are packed off to a kiddie daycare center called “Sunnyside.” Remember: The toys live to be played with and loved by a child, so when they tumble out of the box at Sunnyside, everything seems too good to be true. The daycare center is a brightly painted wonderland of fun for children. It is crammed full of other happy toys, and best of all, every day this happy home for toys will be full of children to play with them.
A toy dump truck pulls up, and Andy’s toys are welcomed by a big, pink teddy bear with a Colonel Sanders voice named Lots o’ Huggin’—or Lotso for short. He bellows out in his jovial voice, “Welcome to Sunnyside!” Lotso explains that they will be happy there all the rest of their days. No more rejection. No more children growing up and packing them into the attic or out for a garage sale. No, indeed. Their dreams have come true. At Sunnyside, they will have never ending stream of children to play with them every day.
Before long, the dream turns into a nightmare. The children turn out to be violent brats. They don’t play with the toys. They torture them. It gets worse. Lotso is a manipulative tyrant. He’s Lots o’ Huggin’ on the outside, but Lots o’ Thuggery behind the scenes. He and his mediocre cronies rule the place for their own benefit. The toys are locked up at night “for their own security.” So Sunnyside turns out to have a dark side. It’s a prison of the worst kind—a prison where everyone has to be happy all the time.
After returning to my American homeland after a twenty-five year sojourn in England, I have come to see parts of America as Sunnyside writ large. Why are we such suckers for artificial, superficial “happiness?” There seems to be a kind of national naivety—as if our whole purpose in life is to create a squeaky-clean fantasy world for ourselves. We have fantasy restaurant experiences, fantasy suburbs with fake English place names like “Worcester Woods,” filled with fantasy homes populated with fantasy families with chemically-controlled (2.5) children with Ken and Barbie for their Daddy and Mommy. We think it’s great to have fantasy bodies perked up with plastic surgery and Botox and cosmetic dentistry and fake tans and fake-just-about-everything.
This plaster-and-plastic-surface world also seems to be what most people want in their religion. We want “Coca-Cola Christianity”—sweet, fizzy, and if you drink enough, it rots your teeth. We allow ourselves to be led by charming, shallow preachers who also have sun tans and perfect smiles and big hair (and that’s just the men). They soothe us with a blend of inspirational clap-trap and self-help platitudes, and they welcome us, like Lotso, into a wonderful congregation, school, or religious community that will be all sweetness and love and light. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, they and their mediocre cronies are cunning manipulators, religious entrepreneurs—driven by the need to fill their churches in order to meet the budget—and to do this they have to beat the other guy.
Our politics chillingly reflect the televangelists. Another charlatan with a fake tan and big hair from the misnamed world of “reality TV” competes in the vulgarity and corruption sweepstakes with the Lady MacBeth de nos jour and her smirking, priapic ex-president consort.
If this were just a case of power-hungry tyrants subjugating an unwilling crowd, it would be lamentable, but unremarkable. What is curious and scary about the toys in Toy Story 3 (and about us and our national naivety) is how much we long to believe the fiction. We are desperate to believe in the artificial Nirvanas we have created. We are incurable Utopians. We are so desperate for happiness that we unconsciously collude with that preacher or politician or community leader who is too good to be true. We’re happy to trade our brains, our wallets, our common sense, and our better judgment in order to invest in the dream. Even worse, we’re happy to hand over our wills, our principles, and our dignity in order to have a share in the dream.
This subtle collusion between the dominator and the dominated is the stuff of sick religion. It’s potent. It’s powerful. It’s seductive, for we all long to believe the shiny image that is being portrayed of a “perfect” religious community, or a beautiful school of happy and successful children. We long to belong to that perfect parish where everyone is always happy all the time. The pressure becomes great on everyone involved to perpetrate the fiction, and when someone stops playing by the rules and won’t smile on cue… well, things get nasty. The other players rally around and make sure the world stays perfect. The person who has seen through Sunnyside will soon be seen out. The “malcontents” are ostracized and rejected. The happy inhabitants of Sunnyside will shoot their wounded to preserve their dream.
It is easy to imagine that only people in fringe sects and weird cults fall into this unhealthy dynamic. But it’s a sad truth that people of all stripes can fall into the same trap. We only have to read about the scandals of Miles Jesu, The Legionnaires of Christ, the Community of the Beatitudes, or other religious communities that have gone bad to remember that Catholics can also fall into the honey-trap of a religious community that is too good to be true.
So what’s the remedy? I’m convinced that we come down to earth and get rid of the spiritual or political stars in our eyes as we remain committed to our own local communities. The parish church community or the community of local politics is not nearly as exciting and shiny as some new religious group or the latest charismatic leader full of empty promises. The saints in the parish are likely to be ordinary, flawed people who are just doing their best to live a Catholic life. Like a family, the local community is likely to have pastoral problems and financial worries and relationship crises. It’s not perfect—but it’s real.
The other practical answer to Utopianism is to work with the poor. Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty serving someone less fortunate than yourself. Don’t look for a life that is candy-coated; look for a life that is gritty and real and hard. Eat your vegetables before you eat your dessert. If you live like that, whenever you come across a Sunnyside with a smiling Lotso, you’ll spot a world that’s too good to be true, and discover instead a world that is true—even if it doesn’t feel too good.
Book on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.