Perhaps you saw the animated film “Inside Out” when it was in theaters last summer. I missed it but finally watched it over the Christmas break with some of my family. What a creative film about “emerging adults” and the emotional turbulence that seems to characterize the inevitable transition from the innocence of youth to the challenging years of middle and high school. I think every parent of a junior high student ought to see this film – perhaps with your student! And I might extend that suggestion to every parent of students – almost whatever age: for parents of Grammar students, in order to look ahead and prepare; and for parents of high students, to look back and smile. Allow me to offer a few rambling comments and thoughts.
First, the premise of “Inside Out” is that the five emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust live and work together in an emotional control room in the mind of “Riley” a young girls of 11-12. [in the picture above the are (left to right): Fear, Sadness, Joy, Disgust, and Anger] Would that things were so simple! While a most entertaining piece of work, there is always a danger if we see a movie as “the way things work.” Perhaps it goes without saying that though the movie is profoundly creative, humans are far more complex and far less mechanistic than portrayed in this film. It works for this movie, of course; but since we are fearfully and wonderfully made, the reality is far more unfathomable. That said, there are numerous positive take-aways from the film (which was produced by the same writer/producer of “Up” and “Monsters, Inc.”).
Second, the story follows the “inside” world of Riley’s emotions as they interact with and respond to her “outside” world of family, friends, sports, school, etc. After doing a little reading, I learned that the “outside” portion of the story comprises less than 20% of the film with well over 80% of the action taking place inside Riley’s mind. “Joy” is the leading emotion, personified by an irrepressibly positive pixie (“A good day leads to a good week, leads to a good month, leads to a good year, leads to a good life!” she says). But “Sadness” and her cohorts, “Anger,” “Fear,” and “Disgust” chime in accordingly to keep things lively. Joy’s goal is to be sure that each day brings memories (in the form of colored spheres) that sparkle and shine. At the end of the day, the memories are downloaded into the long term storage. But especially important “core memories” leave an indelible mark on Riley and these special spheres stay in the “control room.”
Third, the idea of “core memories” is provocative. In fact, while watching the film, I was pushed into thinking about (perhaps dredging up!) a few core memories of my own. Each of our lives has numerous “water shed” moments that, to a lesser or greater degree, shape us into who we are, chart our course in life for better or worse. One Geneva colleague insightfully noted, “The fact that certain core memories/experiences really do shape who we are and become [should be] an admonition to educators and parents to be careful about how we interact with the students/children … But [we must also remember], God can work in us to change us. Through sanctification we can become what God has called us to be – regardless of our core memories.”
Fourth, at one point, Riley re-encounters her early childhood “imaginary friend” named Bing Bong. In a painful moment during the story, this “friend” sacrifices himself (falling into the “memory dump”) in order to help her move ahead in her development and growth. This made me think of 1 Corinthians 13 when Paul speaks of letting go of “childish things.” Such an act is painful, but necessary for growth.
Fifth, this thought leads to a critical factor (and the turning point in the movie): the realization that life will not always be made up of “happy” memories. In fact, the film demonstrates the value sadness can bring when mixed with joy. At a critical moment in Riley’s journey, when all seems lost, Joy realizes this and says, “Sadness, it’s up to you. Riley needs you!”
I have often told students that though we all wish for comfort, peace, and happiness in life, the most precious and formative lessons we learned come through difficulty, often mixed with sadness and loss. And this film does a great job demonstrating this. And as this was playing out in the film, Tolkien came to mind (of course!)
Finally, Tolkien has much to teach us about the close relationship between joy and sadness. In his letters and in an important essay “On Fairy-Stories” Tolkien weaves a beautiful tapestry, convincingly showing that joy and sorrow produce something far more beautiful than either can alone. This difficult and mysterious concept comes through in the film as Riley eventually realizes that one of her core memories of joy was actually immediately preceded by (and indeed set in motion by) one of her greatest moments of grief and loss. Tolkien once wrote: “Christian joy . . . produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love” (Letters, 89). This is a great example of what Tolkien calls “eucatastrophe” – a word he coined to describe the instance when something terrible actually turns out to lead to something immeasurably good. With respect to story, Tolkien said eucatastrophe is the “sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance . . . .”
In Riley’s case, in a crucial moment of maturity, she realizes that this core memory is actually a mixture of the bright yellow of joy and the blue of sadness which is more rich and deeply satisfying than she could ever have imagined as a young child when she tried to forget the sadness and loss.
Do you see the gospel here? As we mature as humans made in God’s image, we confront our brokenness and sinful inability to be “good” on our own. When this happens, we begin more deeply to appreciate (and hopefully to appropriate) the richness offered us in the grace of redemption we find in the Good News. Tolkien calls the death and resurrection of Christ the greatest eucatastrophe which occurs in the truest story. As we see and understand that death issues forth in life and loss can bring understanding and joy, we begin to be able to see that memories of even “bad” things can become, by God’s grace “good” things (and that sometimes the bad and the good are the very same incident!). In this way we can affirm Romans 8 when Paul writes, “And we know that for those who love God all things [and that all is an all-inclusive all] work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
At the movie’s end, Joy and Sadness walk hand-in-hand. And so it is in our lives.