When the Toy Department of Life Closes

Sports equiment

“Lessons from our forced break from the good, but trivial.” – By Mike Lotzer

I’ll never forget the first time I heard my commanding officer in the Military boldly declare, “Sports belong in the toy department of life!” The man was infamous for generating controversial idioms, and when it came to comparing famous athletes to those who fought in the war, he had no patience. Oddly enough, he really liked sports and often spoke to us on the lessons elite athletes have to teach warriors in combat zones, like teamwork and fostering mental and physical resiliency. 

With the onset of the Coronavirus, social distancing and our collective efforts to “flatten the curve” sports at every level, from State High School Championships to the Olympics, have disappeared. So too, have going to coffee shops, restaurants, concerts, and vacations. These are temporary but real losses. They are painful for almost all of us in one way or another. My Commander’s “toy department” classification seemed to be part of a broader critique he held of America’s misguided priorities. “Perhaps he is right,” I remember thinking at the time. Considering his comment in the light of our strange new world makes me wonder if our extreme love of games and good times has cost us more than we realize. Has it made us slower to recognize and celebrate genuine sacrifice, selfless service, and enduring values?

Sports do belong in the toy department of life. Of course, by this logic, travel, concerts, going to movies, and backyard barbeques are all similarly trivial when compared to people fighting and dying for their fellow citizens or other similar honorable endeavors. The toy department is not small, to be sure, and it is by no means worthless. Life is indeed more fulfilling with these “trivialities” in it. For example, psychologists agree that children and adults both learn and develop best when allowed to play. The toy-department of life then directly facilitates this process of personal and societal development, so there’s that. Yet two things can be true simultaneously. Toys have value, and the problem my Colonel brought to light is real:

When those activities that belong to the toy department of life become the main attraction of life, individuals and cultures become predictably shallow and self-absorbed. 

When we trade that which is essential for that which is trivial, we develop a kind of group amnesia. We start to forget that there are invaluable pursuits and parts of a life well lived that have almost nothing to do with sports, entertainment, leisure, or the pursuit of pleasure. Additionally, we begin to engage in worshipping the heroes of the toy department, and they predictably buckle under that kind of weight. All this leads to a general disordering and blurring of our priorities. Our over-active attachment to toys leaves us feeling unfulfilled and even addicted.

Might the empty shelves that now mark life’s metaphorical toy department offer us something long overdue? Yes. I believe we now have a unique opportunity to examine and re-establish our priorities regarding our relationship with the toy department of life.  Our culture is not merely interested in sports, travel, and leisure, we are borderline addicted. I could list statistics, but do I even need to? You and I both know how accurate this assessment is. 

I regularly sit with people who are dying in hospice. To date, I’ve never heard one dying person anguish over not having played or watched enough sports, attended enough concerts, or taken one more cruise. 

No, what most of us will primarily regret on our deathbed is that we did not invest more energy and time in relationships with our family and friends. We may also regret not becoming more virtuous and loving or perhaps not taking more responsibility and risks to help others. The sad truth is that many people will come to regret putting hobbies and passions like sports and travel above those less entertaining, but arguably higher, priorities of life.

Toys are wonderful. They foster playfulness, good-hearted competition, rest, and renewal. They can even enrich relationships when leveraged well. And when toys become the central focus of our lives, we have a problem. We stop playing sports, and they start playing us. We no longer own toys, they own us. Toys make excellent servants to human flourishing and terrible masters. If you doubt this think back on that time, you witness an out of control parent scream like a maniac at a miserable first grader to “Just be the ball!” 

What if our addiction to the good, but trivial, has eclipsed our understanding of what is most valuable? I suspect, for many of us, it has. Eventually, our hiatus from the toy department of life will end. We will enjoy sports and leisure events once again. When this happens, we will all have a choice to make.

Will we continue to give these passions and pursuits the same level of priority they enjoyed before the Coronavirus? Or will we leverage this Pandemic-pause to realign our priorities? Herein lies the opportunity to reorient our daily lives around the relationships, virtues, and meaningful work that we know will matter most in the end. Fun and games are great, but let’s not make them the nucleus of our lives. 

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