Just recently, I saw Pixar’s Inside Out, and midway through I was surprised to find myself weeping. I don’t know if I have begun to weep more often and more easily, simply because I’m older, but if so, then that proves the storyline of the movie very deeply true. For it seems that as we’re older, the things that bring us such pure joy become intertwined with sorrow. And it seems that the simple, vibrant happiness of childhood, that exists with such high frequency and pitch is no longer sustainable as we develop into increasingly more complex beings.
Inside Out opens with the birth of a child, and the one singular emotion that dwells within a newborn child: Joy. The birth of Joy and the birth of our young protagonist are simultaneous, which struck me as a deeply significant statement that joy is somehow native to a human soul. Human life is, from its very first, something that is full of joy, and, existence, simply for existence’s sake, is a cause for rejoicing.
Quickly, however, with the onset of the first hunger pangs, thirst or inability to express oneself to the large world surrounding her, the baby lets out her first cry of sadness. Joy, the emotion, is bewildered: what is this?
From the corners of the child’s mind emerges Sadness, an unlikely heroine in a turtleneck sweater. Sadness takes over the console of the brain for a few moments, bumbling and hapless, feeling out of place and incompetent, before Joy swoops in to clean up the mess and restore happy equanimity.
Thus begins a thoroughly compelling coming-of-age saga, told from an unlikely perspective: from the view of the interior of the young girl’s brain. The movie sets a meditative tone, as we shift between watching the actual events of the young girl Rylee’s life unfold, and the emotions that swirl inside of her head that contribute to these events, comment upon them, and process them long after they have occurred.
With Joy as our primary protagonist, we see the collection of memories—here picture as glowing orbs of color and light that churn through the factory of the brain each day—that accrue from a generally happy and well-adjusted childhood in suburban Minnesota. Joy reigns supreme here. While the introduction of broccoli births a new emotion: Disgust, and Anger and Fear round out the cohort, Joy is clearly in control.
Bolstered by the Islands of Personality: Family, Friends, Honesty, Goofball-ery and, of course, Hockey (lest we forget our Minnesotan setting), Joy fosters the creation of glowing golden orbs of happy memories, and carefully curates their preservation. The most precious of these are the Core Memories: the fundamental moments of joy that have solidify Rylee’s personality and power the Islands of Personality.
Then, Rylee and her family move to California, and this jarring shift in her life sends Rylee’s emotions into a tizzy. In a series of unfortunate mishaps, both Joy and Sadness are thrown from the brain’s headquarters where the emotions reside, and must begin a harrowing journey back to headquarters, to restore proper balance to the brain.
Sorrow and Joy are vital states of beings that power us. Throughout the movie, Joy seems to not know what to do with Sorrow. For most of us, when we are children, we also have this relation to Sorrow. We know that we feel most like ourselves when we are happy, but when something arises to cause us sorrow; we have a good cry, and then forget about it. We move on anxiously from our sorrow, because it feels foreign to ourselves, and foreign to the joyful equilibrium we desire. As C.S. Lewis writes in the first chapter of Mere Christianity: “It is only our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves.” We desire so deeply to be happy, to be fine. Sadness and anger seem to point to a dis-ease in ourselves, or in our world, which we would rather ignore.
But one of the beautiful moments in the movie is when Sadness begins to understand the value of her vocation, as it were. Sadness possesses the unique ability to practice empathy. Deep within the interior of the brain, Sadness sits with Rylee’s old imaginary friend, a cotton candy elephant-cat hybrid named Bing-Bong. Surprisingly, Bing-Bong is the most poetic and heart-breaking character in the piece, which is a testament to the exquisite artistry of Pixar’s virtuoso story-telling. Who else but these wizards of story-telling could turn a cotton candy elephant-cat hybrid into a figure of Christly love?
As Bing-Bong weeps (candy, naturally) it is Sadness alone who can provide comfort in this moment. While Joy races frantically about in an effort to cheer up the sorrowing creature, Sadness sits quietly next to Bing-Bong and takes his hand. For Sadness knows and understands his pain; she knows loss; and she knows that a good cry and a comforting hand on the shoulder are some of life’s deepest saving graces.
Sadness opens up a world of grief to us, which can either turn our self-pitying gaze inward; or can turn our vision outward, orient our pity to others, and allow us to keenly feel their own plight. Equipped with our own sadness, we are able to empathize with other humans. And with empathy, we are able to reach another human being and truly provide them with companionship. We can take their hand, listen to their story of loss, and provide them with the assurance that they are not alone. Sadness provides us with experiences that allow us to understand the experiences of others, which is perhaps one of the great miracles of the human existence.
The climax of the movie arrives when Joy realizes that her nemesis Sadness, too, has a role in Rylee’s life. Joy examines the core memories—these luminous receptacles of memory she has guarded so carefully, and realizes that even there in these supremely joyful moments, there was sadness present: A happy moment occurred, because of a painful one that preceded it, or there was an undercurrent of sorrow even in the sweetest memory. And this knowledge of Sadness’ role in Rylee’s life does not lessen or depreciate Joy’s primacy in Rylee’s life, but rather strengthens it.
C.S. Lewis, in his spiritual autobiography, defines Joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic; and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally be called unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.” Surprised by Joy, chapter one.
Although the personification of Joy in the Pixar film does not quite match Lewis’ description of Joy, she is not far off. For Joy longs for all that is sweet and good. Joy longs for Rylee to be completely satisfied and happy. Rylee can never attain this state of uninterrupted bliss, but Joy yearns for this. Most importantly, Joy is not portrayed as incompatible with sadness or sorrow, but, rather, the film suggests that Sadness and Joy are somehow intertwined within our deepest selves. When the luminous core memories are touched by Sadness, they become no longer just one haze of happy light, but bittersweet memories, containing equally sad and happy moments. When we are touched by both sorrow and joy, the deepest core of our self is transformed and matures into a new creation.
Although the protagonist of the movie is an eleven-year-old girl, it resonated deeply with the emotional journeys that many of my peers and I have experienced over the past year as young adults moving from the safety of homelike liberal arts colleges into the adult world of big cities and new jobs. Moving from the warmth and comfort, and effortless Joy of home: whether that home is Minnesota, a University dorm, or a constantly encircling community of friends, the Freshman Year of Real Life takes its emotional toll.
As we struggle to prove—to others and to ourselves—that we can be successful transplants, it is very easy to push away whatever causes us to feel sadness. In Inside Out, all of Rylee’s Personality Islands are powered by her core memories, and these core memories are all moments of Joy that fuel her personality. When we are removed from these causes of Joy, it seems as if Joy has been lost to us. Thus, we limit our emotional range: we tell ourselves: well, I’m okay then. I’m fine. But “fine” is not Joy. Fine is perhaps like happiness, in that there is the absence of sorrow. But sorrow and joy are interconnected. The absence of Sorrow also means the absence of Joy.
If we do not allow ourselves to feel Sorrow: to mourn the loss of what has passed, to wish for something better, to experience a sadness that will open us up to understanding the experiences of others, then we can never experience this deeper, richer Joy. Perhaps this new sort of Joy is more bittersweet; but though it may come at the cost of sorrow, once we have tasted it we would never, in the words of Lewis, “exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.”