We Are All on the Island of Misfit Toys

I come from a generation of kids who had to plan their television binging far in advance. I’m sure you have heard of these days: we had three channels (plus PBS for Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers), we used rabbit-ear antennas to improve reception, and we got the TV schedule every Sunday in the newspaper and read through it carefully to see what was coming on TV that week so we could plan our schedules.

During the Christmas season, planning was extremely important. There were about a dozen Christmas favorites that we had to watch as a matter of moral duty: The Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, and The Year without a Santa Claus (with its inimitable Snow-Miser/Heat-Miser jazz combo, which was worth the price of the show). But the two most important ones–for reasons that I never quite understood but probably had to do with the fact that they were also the Christmas songs we knew best—were Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.

It is Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer that calls to me today—the stop-motion animation that turns a mildly amusing song into a one-hour drama full of hopes and dreams and bullying and grace. And an abominable snowman. But what I really want to talk about is the Island of Misfit Toys, by far my favorite three minutes and 20 seconds of television Christmas history.

If you don’t remember the story, it goes like this: Rudolph, the eponymous Rangifer, and Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist, independently realize that they will never be normal, so they join forces and escape from Santa’s forced labor camp. Eventually, they meet other misfits and find themselves on the Island of Misfit Toys, which is where we find a Jack-in-the-Box named Charlie, a spotted toy elephant, a water pistol that shoots jelly, and all of the other weird toys that nobody wants to play with. The ruler of the Island–a kindly flying lion named King Moonracer is like Santa Claus in reverse–every night except Christmas, he goes all over the world looking for weird and unloved toys. Then he brings them back to the island where they form a community of the unlovely, unloved, and un-playd-with. Eventually, the Moonracer promises them, he will find a little boy or girl who wants nothing more than a Jack-in-the-Box named Charlie. 

To my third-grade self, the Island of Misfit Toys section was a distraction and a chance to get up and go to the bathroom. But I now realize that it is the most important part of the show and, perhaps, the crucial metaphor of both Christmas and the gospel. What is the Church if not a place that accepts everybody, no matter how broken, unlovely, or strange? And what is the Christ if not the one who gathers these hopeless people together and gives them hope?

The brief Island of Misfit Toys Christmas segment pairs nicely with one of the greatest poems in our language, which is “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It goes like this

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Like most undergraduates, I struggled with this poem the first few times I read it. Hopkins’ sense of meter is challenging enough, but this poem has a lot of words in it that most people don’t know, like “dappled,” “couple-colour,” “brinded,” “stipple,” and, of course, “pied.” I had to look all of these words up, and when I did, I discovered that they all mean basically the same thing: splotchity. Synonyms for “splotchity” might include “irregular,” “unpredictable,” “uneven,” or even “messy.” But none of these work as well as “splotchity.”

All of the denizens of the Island of Misfit Toys are splotchity in their own way. They look funny, or they don’t quite work the way that they are supposed to. For Hopkins, splotchitiness was the same as uniqueness. The natural phenomena that he describes: skies, cows, bird’s wings, trout, landscapes are all unique. Each one has different patterns and configurations of colors that set them apart from every other thing in the universe. This uniqueness is God’s stamp of ownership on all living things. It is how He shows his love, and it is, for Hopkins, the essence of divine beauty.

The opposite of splotchiness is uniformity: factory produced items that all look alike, tract homes in a new subdivision, things that are perfect, uniform, balanced, symmetrical, and even. Such uniformity does not occur in nature; it is the product of human enterprise. Human beings equate beauty with uniformity and go to great lengths to eliminate splotchitiness. This is why toy companies have production lines and Vice Presidents of Quality Control. Their job is not to make sure that everything coming off the assembly line is good; it is to make sure that everything is the same. No red-nosed reindeers in this batch–those are over on Line 17.

The great question of “Pied Beauty” is whether we are going to adopt God’s standard of beauty, which is splotchity, or humanity’s standard, which is uniform. This is an interesting aesthetic question, but it is an even more important religious one—especially if one is in the business of building Zion, whose famous tag line, “people of one heart and mind,” doesn’t sound splotchity at all.

But let’s follow Hopkins through to the end. If God stamps each person with a uniqueness that signals his love, then those who follow God have a responsibility, not merely to tolerate what makes people unique, but to glory in its divinity. This means outward shape, size and color, but God’s stamp goes deeper than that. It includes personality traits, beliefs, values, life experiences, and, yes, even sexualities, gender experiences, and ways of understanding the Gospel. We are unique, and therefore splotchity, in many different ways, all of them divine.

All of these things come ultimately from God, and the mix that they produce is pied, stipple, brinded, dappled, and, well, splotchity. We are all misfit toys—because that is what beautiful looks like to God.

Comments

  1. I agree with your premise that we are all similar to misfit toys with our unique challenges and shortcomings. Unfortunately, the LDS culture encourages a mentality of perfection. Instead of looking at our individual issues as natural challenges that we can work on, we tend to view these issues as shortcomings that should be hidden.

    I’ve read somewhere that the Church should be a place for sinners, not a museum for the perfect. After all, we are all misfits. But I’m afraid the LDS culture encourages us to at least look perfect instead of acknowledging reality.

  2. “God’s stamp goes deeper than that. It includes personality traits, beliefs, values, life experiences, and, yes, even sexualities, gender experiences, and ways of understanding the Gospel. We are unique, and therefore splotchity, in many different ways, all of them divine. All of these things come ultimately from God”

    No. God clearly favors some traits and condemns others (blessed are the x, woe unto the y).

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    I enjoyed reading this post and agree with the sentiment, but with respect to lived experience it is more or less aspirational. Kind of like the “We Are All Cafeteria Mormons”-type posts that regularly show up around the bloggernacle. As far as I can tell, the Church seems to be moving further and further away from the big tent, radically inclusive institution we all long for it to be. The proliferation of key phrases such as “covenant path” and “stay in the boat” indicate as much.

    I also enjoyed the Rudolph television special growing up, and now my kids love it too. As an adult, it’s an especially good starting point for material that mocks dentists and dentistry.

  4. Nancy Roche says:

    I have never seen this holiday special. Growing up, my family didn’t always have television (we did, however, always have Bob RIvers and Dr. Demento coming out of Vegas). I agree that we’re all dappled in some ways, and I love this idea. The teachings of Jesus seem to indicate that our differences are meant to encourage interdependence (as Dallin Oaks and other church authorities have discussed). Perhaps, before we are all individually perfected, we will find a collective perfection. But such speculation assumes that difference is necessarily weakness, which assumption this post does some important work towards unraveling. Thank-you.

    To Jack Hughes, I would point out that “covenant path” and “stay in the boat” are synonyms for “the big tent” rather than any erasure of personality or a differently-shaped trial. Conformity of identity and conformity of behavior (obedience) are certainly not identical and should not be conflated.

  5. Heather Mowrer says:

    What a beautiful piece! It is poetry 😊

  6. @B – “God clearly favors some traits and condemns others (blessed are the x, woe unto the y).”

    But those traits God favors tend to go against what the world favors, and visa-versa, which supports the Island of Misfit Toys analogy in the OP. E.g., Blessed are those who mourn, the meek, the poor in spirit, the lepers, the blind; “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you [the religious leaders].” Wo unto the rich, those who are wise in their own eyes, those who pay tithing but omit justice and mercy.

  7. As a kid, I could never figure out why the Charlie-in-a-box couldn’t just declare his name to be Jack, or why nobody thought to fill the jelly gun with water. Perhaps I had received my get-back-in-the-boat indoctrination early.

  8. Michael, thx for writing this post. In a Church that desperately needs diversity, this is a very important message. So far, most of leadership’s efforts to diversity have been mainly cosmetic. Which is truly unfortunate.

  9. I was fortunate, although it did not seem so at the time, to have spent my life in the wards of misfit Mormons, singles, especially those over age 30. It took me decades to realize how truly lucky I had been.
    Too many of the problems faced by the members were such that they could not be hidden. Multiple divorces culminating in a diagnosis of bipolar, which could only be partially remedied by medication. Violence in the families these people grew up in, affecting their willingness to trust another enough to commit to them in marriage. Or caused them to seek peace in the imaginary world of film romances, giving them totally unrealistic expectations of marriage and relationships. A spouse who suddenly expressed he was gay and had found a partner he wanted to be with. Then later died of AIDS. Trying to help children adjust to their less than ideal family circumstances and still choose the gospel.
    Yes, these circumstances exist in family wards, but not in the same number and intensity.
    We had to learn about the challenges faced by our ward members and what was solvable in mortality and what could only be endured. We had to learn to be Christians, to help those move away from an abusive marriage who we just the year before had helped celebrate their seventh wedding. To welcome the child a ward member conceived out of wedlock and only discovered when the child was 15 years old. To see beyond our home teacher’s inability to quit smoking.
    Our ward changed age limitations and the former members scattered, to reconnect on facebook. But every Sunday after attending another dull family ward, I miss my misfit members. As do so many ward members, regularly expressing the fact they have never felt so accepted as they did in the singles’ ward. Here was the ward where they could just serve each other and Christ and never felt less than other Church members. We did not feel single in a family church. We felt we were followers of Christ.

  10. My adult singles ward had much the same feel. But it took us over a decade to get there. At first no one knew what to do with a Relief Society president with five divorces behind her. I am happy to relate her sixth marriage succeeded and she served a successful mission with her husband. And died faithful in her religion.
    We did not succeed everywhere. Our former elder’s quorum president committed suicide rather than face another round with his recurring mental problems. Problems that caused him to disappear for weeks and return having sought out prostitutes for sex. And he was not the only ward suicide, but then we had two in my family ward growing up so maybe that is not so unusual.
    I realize that to most long married members our problems seemed extreme. People overheard the children of our bishop talk about the weirdos their father worked with. But to me, the weirdos were the children in these picture perfect families. They were the true misfit toys because they could not be used by Christ. They were too busy guarding (and need I say worshiping) their own images to step beyond their comfortable views of themselves as normal and reach out in love to others.

  11. “This means outward shape, size and color, but God’s stamp goes deeper than that. It includes personality traits, beliefs, values, life experiences, and, yes, even sexualities, gender experiences, and ways of understanding the Gospel. We are unique, and therefore splotchity, in many different ways, all of them divine.

    “All of these things come ultimately from God, and the mix that they produce is pied, stipple, brinded, dappled, and, well, splotchity. We are all misfit toys—because that is what beautiful looks like to God.”

    I appreciate the idea being expressed in this post. I really do. Especially as someone who almost always feels out of place at church and, well, most places. And I love that poem.

    But I’m also struggling with the conclusion because it feels a little too theologically facile to me. To begin with, I’m simply unsure that the way things are in this world must be taken as coming from God or representing his intent or preferred aesthetic.

    To take this notion at face value is to assume that every debilitating malady—physical and otherwise—comes from God and is beautiful to him. It is apparently to assume that the awful effects of abuse, trauma, and pain are divine and beautiful. And if differences of beliefs and values are all divine and ultimately come from God, then I would have to thank God for and celebrate Trumpism, facism, racism, sexism, homophobia, jingoism, and all the wonderfully diverse rainbow of value systems of hate and exclusion. And I most certainly do not.

    I think that B’s comment above has a real point. I agree that diversity and difference can be beautiful, and surely God celebrates our diverse talents, gifts, and variously imperfect but earnest efforts. But as warm and fuzzy as it might make us feel to say that diversity and difference are *in themselves* divine goods, that doesn’t ring true to me. God definitely prefers some traits to others. He prefers love over hate, truth over falsehood, knowledge over ignorance, justice over inequity, mercy over cruelty, and humility over pride. He invites us not to be simply be whatever we are, however nature and/or nuture made us, but to be perfect—to be like his Son. Some personality traits, beliefs, values, and other modalities will have to be “mortif[ied]” as we strive to “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:12, 28).

    To paraphrase Elder Holland, all of God’s critters have a place in the choir, but he *does* want them in the choir, and choirs aren’t free-for-alls. Harmony isn’t uniformity, but it’s not cacophony either.

    Sorry, this probably comes across as annoyingly repetitive and contrary. But this comes from a place of sincere grappling with the paradoxes presented by the values of both diversity and unity. (And a fairly persistent hesitance to infer divine agency or intent from the status quo of a beautiful but fallen world and to draw theological conclusions from this.)

  12. This is lovely Michael, very tender and relevant, and not facile one single bit (apologies sort of to some of the above comments). The September 2020 Ensign contains an article “Seeing yourself in the Proclamation to the Family.” I am a transgender person, and I struggled to see myself fitting in to any of the categories discussed in that article. No where in that article is there a place for a transgender person to fit- except in the umbrella category from President Eyring to “do your best and it will all be ok.” After having come to the conclusion that it was more dangerous for my life and survival to fit with the church’s paradigm as outlined in the Proclamation than to fit with myself, I have been a misfit toy in the church ever since. But I am not going to go live on an island, I don’t want to be invisible. I am happy to say that most (not all) individuals in the church community where I have lived help me to feel comfortable and accepted. This is a case where I don’t fit because of who I am and what I need to do (transition) in order to survive. I always loved Moonracer, and felt more love from that scary flying lion than from the jolly Santa (who learns to accept Rudolph only as a consequence of dire necessity- wheras Moonracer accepts unconditionally. Highly highly highly relevant. thank you. I am going to risk spamming with one of my poems that feels relevant. Thank you for this Michael. https://lonagynt.wordpress.com/2020/12/09/btt-38-2-how-to-unwrap-gods-gifts-on-christmas-morning/

  13. Jack Hughes. Beware of using popular media to teach your children to mock dentists. It only leads to harder stuff, first Rudolph, then before you know it, they are singing along to “Little Shop of Horrors.” As for dentist? They are pulling for us.