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”Inside Out” and God’s Gift of Sadness

July 20, 2015


(NOTE: Spoiler alert!)

Pixar’s newest film, Inside Out, serves as another brilliant addition to their oeuvre of computer-animated films. Just as critics were growing suspicious of this famous animation studio due to its recent reliance on less memorable sequels, Pixar released one of their most stunningly original and beautifully touching films yet, complete with a charming cast of characters and compelling narrative as well as a seamless integration of deep, complex themes about growing up and, essentially, learning what it means to be human. They have answered any and all critics with an impressive rebuttal: a confident wagging of their Midas finger.

The film masterfully explores the danger of avoiding sadness and exhausting joy, a theme we can see in our culture without much eye straining—an inordinate drive to secure emotional happiness at all costs, avoiding, ignoring, or destroying all obstacles that could hinder it. Yet, as we witness in the film, there is a necessary “growing up” that reveals not only the benefit of sadness, but also the inescapable need for it to allow a deeper sense of richness in our lives and, paradoxically, a more lasting joy. The merging of these two emotions—joy and sadness—serves as a reminder of the way of discipleship. By following Christ on a path that requires us to carry our cross while at the same time exuding joy, we come to regard this bittersweet bond as a gift—an opportunity to receive and give love more fully.

The film follows the manifestations of five emotions—named Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger—in the mind of a girl named Riley. These emotions dwell in her mind’s “headquarters,” a control room where the characters control Riley’s emotional states (as you can guess, each character is responsible for the emotion of its namesake). The film casts Riley’s mind as a wondrous, orderly landscape, complete with “islands” that reflect different aspects of her personality, colored orbs that signify memories and, most importantly, a hub located in headquarters that stores her “core memories.”

Joy leads the motley band of emotions with her effervescent demeanor and unsullied optimism. However, as the eleven year-old Riley begins to experience hardship (moving from her Minnesota home to San Francisco, enduring a poor hockey tryout, feeling a sense of isolation and abandonment from her distracted parents), we learn that Sadness has the capacity to touch her “core memories,” altering them from joyful ones into sad ones. Joy attempts to keep Sadness away from these “core memories,” and through a standard Pixar-esque swirl of misguided intentions and an amusing struggle, Joy and Sadness both end up outside of headquarters. So begins their quest to return home, venturing through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind, while coming to appreciate the role of endearingly dejected Sadness along the way.

While the film explores and ultimately posits the need for sadness, this is hardly uncharted territory. In a Scientific American article by Tori Rodriguez, Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being”, we observe the usefulness—and necessity—of an emotion like sadness:

“…anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment. ‘Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being,’ says psychologist Jonathan M. Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.”

Allowing ourselves to experience unpleasant emotions can lead to greater clarity of vision with respect to our experiences, relationships and life in general. Of course, such an indulging in a negative, healthy emotion—as opposed to unhealthy ones such as clinical depression or distorted thinking—for the sake of clarity and reflection must be done to a measured and healthy degree. Speaking strictly about natural sadness, it proves to be a necessary factor in our development.

We see this reality materialize in the film. Bing Bong, Riley’s comedic imaginary friend, has been cast aside in the distant recesses of her consciousness as she’s grown older. When the plaintive Bing Bong reveals his loneliness and lament for the loss his “real” friend Riley, Joy’s attempts to cheer him up prove ineffective. Instead, it is Sadness—and her willingness to simply be present, listen, and acknowledge his loss—who grants him the strength and resolve to continue helping Joy and Sadness on their journey. It’s the film’s first glimpse of sadness’ agency in helping us accept our reality by mourning loss so that we can move on.

Aside from the mental and emotional health benefits of such an emotion, sadness gives us the ability to better enter into the suffering of others. We are reminded of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” There are, as with the entire Sermon on the Mount, layers of richness and depth to Christ’s words. Yet, it is in mourning, in a deep sadness for the loss of some person or happiness, that we can find comfort. We are blessed that God will comfort us in our faithfulness—this we hold onto with certain hope. But it’s also in our mourning and acknowledgement of our sadness that we can better empathize with others—that we can be more fully present to others in their sadness and comfort them with love. If we allow it, our sadness can widen our hearts. And to have a widened heart is to be infinitely blessed.

Sadness also gives nod to our transience in this world. In the movie, Riley is under the assumption that her parents expect her to always be happy (it’s the same assumption Joy has in laboring to keep Sadness from meddling with Riley’s memories). However, in a fallen world as Christians, we accept that lasting joy will not come in this life. We can and often do experience great joys, pleasures and happiness, yet even these are twinged with sadness and loss as we age and accept that things will never be quite the same—that certain joys can only be remembered and never re-lived in the same way in this life. C.S. Lewis explains in The Problem of Pain that this keeps us from settling comfortably into our broken world—from forgetting we are but pilgrims journeying toward our true home with God:

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

What is sadness but a calling to mind that things are not quite right? But a reminder that we are not home yet?

Finally, out of our shared suffering—our mutual sadness—we come to experience the gift of mercy, of Divine love. Our suffering bonds us, allows us the joy of knowing we are not alone. It’s what shows us that we need God, and in needing and receiving God, allows us to love others and be loved by them. And in this receiving and giving of love—in realizing we are not alone—we have hope. In the film, it’s only once Riley accepts her sadness and reveals it to her parents—that she misses home and feels alone—when her parents are able to share their own sadness that they too miss their old life in Minnesota. It’s in this mutual disrobing of an illusory “happiness” and in exposing their true feelings that they are united as a family in love (the three of them embracing is even redolent of the communal and shared love of the Trinity). It’s at this moment when the characters, Joy and Sadness, create a core memory of dual emotions: one with joy and sadness, hope and loss.

Pixar gets it right. And perhaps more than just a necessity, sadness may be one of the greatest gifts for which we thank God in the life to come. For in our sadness—in our suffering—we can experience the joy of knowing God’s unending mercy and love for us.

“Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go.”

William Blake