Please meet Gus.
Gus is a reindeer. He is gray and fuzzy with unblinking black eyes. He has a slight smile on his nose, which doesn’t seem anatomically plausible.
My stepdaughter and I saw him in a shop before Christmas and laughed at what a dope he was. She asked her dad to go back and get him for me. It was the most beautiful, silly present. Then I wondered, what would I, age 37, do with a large, stuffed reindeer? I figured he’d sit on a chair somewhere, under the laundry. You all have a laundry chair, right?
Oh, but I was such a stuffed animal kid. My first toy was a tea-stained bunny in a plaid dress we named Matilda. I chewed her ears to fall asleep until they fell apart in tatters. I amassed more soft toys, lining them up and taking them on rides, preferring their quaggy edges to Barbie’s cruel talons. They’re now tucked away in storage or lost to the sands of time.
Grownups replace stuffed animals with things such as “doing taxes,” “choosing tile” and “antagonizing each other on the internet.” There is simply no time to kick back with a squishy friend.
But, Gus, who is made by the company Jellycat, kept finding his way onto my lap. I flipped his ears during one harrowing pandemic update after another. I squeezed him while watching insurrection live feeds. Gus, who has no political affiliation other than “Caribou,” was a gentle healer. He was soft in a hard world.
I’m not the first adult to discover plush bliss. A random sample of my Instagram followers this week revealed plentiful stuffies, from a manatee to teddy bears to Raggedy Ann to my favorite response: “I am 40 and I have Chimpanzee.”
People are attached to their childhood toys, in particular. In psychology, the concept is called a comfort object, or as the late pediatrician Donald Winnicott put it, a transitional object. It’s a way for infants to move past themselves and into the world. Think of Linus with his blue blanket, uttering Michel de Montaigne: “A man who fears suffering already suffers what he fears.” Linus is all of us!
But if your old friends are long gone, find respite in any soft toy. It does not have to be costly. Get one from a thrift store. Make it out of a sock. “Borrow” a stuffed animal from a local child! Children are resilient.
It should have humanistic features. A pillow is good for clutching, but it does not offer a gaze of unconditional support when you have made a bad decision, when you have not showered in days, when you wonder if it’s allergies or COVID-19.
Keep your best friend in your office, or in the car for the ride home. Stash it in your locker at the hospital or your desk at school, and periodically head back for hugs. If anyone asks why you are clutching a stuffed toy, ask them why they are not.
If we are infantile, so be it. Infants have it great; people feed them, carry them around, let them sleep all day. Children represent the purest parts of us, before we mess it up. What’s so wrong with taking a little piece of that back?
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Gus agrees, by the way. He’s on my lap right now, his idiotic little feet turned up, still smiling.
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