Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Pixar's Inside Out and the Importance of Sadness

[Warning: this review contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, be warned. Also, this post will make more sense if you have seen the movie.]

I’m not that much of a movie person. Sure, I enjoy the occasional flick, and can quote you Princess Bride like nobody’s business. But I rarely see stuff at the theater.

However, the kids have mellowed me a bit, and I went and saw Frozen when it came out, and I ended up writing a whole post on it.

Inside Out looked interesting, so we decided to go see it together during a recent vacation. (I’m pretty sure this is the first time I have ever seen a movie on its opening weekend.)

Four out of five kids liked it. My older daughters, naturally, did. (They are both within a year of Riley’s age, and yes, there is some resemblance…) My seven year old son like everything - including the previews - so naturally he liked this. I was more surprised that my four year old daughter found it to be very intense, and was genuinely concerned that they might not get Riley to be happy ever again. (I should know better by now than to underestimate the ability of Miss Lillian to understand stuff.) My nine year old son wasn’t impressed, but introspection has never been his strong suit. He’ll wait for the Minion Movie, thank you very much.

On the other hand, like many other parents I know, I found myself a bit moved, and have been continuing to think about the movie since.

I’ve always be a bit of an introspective introvert, but it hasn’t been until the last decade or so that I have really been willing to admit that I am also a very emotional sort. Sure, I like to think of myself as logical - and I still think I am. To a degree. But my emotional side is pretty strong, even if I didn’t want to admit it when I was a teen and young man.

Inside Out looks at that awkward transition from child to teen, when everything becomes complicated. For the subject of the film, Riley, this happens at age 11. For me, I would say it was at 12 and 13. Boys develop a bit later. Whatever the case, Pixar really got it right. It was a bit like being inside my own head at that age.

There are a number of fun and witty moments. I particularly liked the bit where Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong get caught in “Abstract Thought.”

But, what I was really left with at the end was the turning point, the pivotal moment. Riley has been governed mostly benignly by Joy, who simply cannot understand why Sadness even exists. But, after a traumatic move and some rocky experiences thereafter, Sadness (for reasons she herself can’t understand) starts changing happy memories to sad. Joy is livid, and ratchets her controlling personality up to the limit. But then, she and Sadness are sucked up and deposited into a remote bit of memory, and have to get back with the key “core memories.”

The epiphany for Joy comes when she realizes that Sadness is as important to life and wellbeing as she is, and that many joyful memories are touched with sadness. The realization occurs as she turns a memory through its entire rotation in time. The sadness itself attracts a resonant feeling in others (in this case, between Riley and her parents), and brings out the actions of comfort and assistance. Sadness serves as a mutual bonding.

Thus, Joy realizes that the key to getting Riley back to emotional stability isn’t to make Sadness stand in a circle by herself where she can do no harm - or good. Rather, Sadness needs to take the controls for a while so that Riley can again feel rather than repress her pain.

It is this insight as to the role and importance - indeed the necessity of sadness that has occupied my thoughts since seeing the movie.

My cousin-by-marriage and theologian, Todd Billings, has referred to this need as that of “lament,” as found in the Psalms, and I think he is on to something.

In our greater society, but also in our churches, there is a relentless pressure to be positive, no matter what. Sometimes we can feel bludgeoned by platitudes, whether from preachers or motivational speakers. Joy, joy, joy, joy, all the time. (Another way that our society and churches favor extroversion and punish introversion.) But it is when we become truly real that we are able to make that connection. Bonding isn’t really about shared peaks, but about shared valleys.

I am particularly reminded of the way that Bill Gothard painted so called “negative” emotions as sins of the worst sort, lumping everything from expression of pain and hurt to disagreement as “bitterness,” which opened your heart to Satan. You wouldn’t want to be bitter, so pain and frustration and fear all were suppressed and not spoken of.

And so, one must always present a facade to others, lest one be tarred with the mark of “bitterness.”

In reality, the strength of the church should be to mourn with those who mourn. Those connections made in the sharing of pain and sadness are the ones that are strong - and last.

On a related note, another thing this film got absolutely right is the “islands” of Riley’s identity. These core areas of self-image are the keys to how we view ourselves and present ourselves to others. When stressed, these islands can prove to be fragile, and we crumble. As the movie shows, they can be particularly vulnerable at times of transition, and it can be difficult to recover from an identity crisis.

This is one reason why no amount of money in the world could ever induce me to repeat my Junior High years. While I have some good memories - and I believe that some of those experiences are key to my own “islands,” those years were really hard for me emotionally.

On a related note, the transition from law school (where I mostly knew my identity) to finding a job, which wasn’t automatic, and seriously stressed this risk-adverse guy, was difficult and required a period of trying to re-orient and right my emotional ship. (Big time thanks to my parents and my (now) wife for helping me through that.)

These transitions also highlight the role of sadness in transitioning from child to adult. So much about childhood is uncomplicated. Happy is happy, and sad is sad, and there is little to confuse it. But in the transition, the line is blurred, and more and more is a mixture of joy and sadness. With every gain, there is a loss. And happy times that were become a memory of pleasure and wistfulness at what can never come back. (I remember with great joy holding my children as babies - but there is also that sadness that they will never be that small again.)


There is no better way to describe it. And yet, without the bitter, the sweet would be cloying.

I remember one of those memories tonight. When I moved out of my family home to my own place, I was thrilled and excited. And, don’t get me wrong, I have never wished to go back. I’m an adult, not a child, and I am glad of that.

But. That one night, months after that move. I went home for a night and slept on the bare floor of my old room in a sleeping bag. That place with all its memories, now just a bare room. I was choked up that night.

And so, Sadness comes and inexplicably touches that yellow orb, and a part turns blue.

Yet, this too is part of the way things must be. As those islands of identity crumble, they are replaced and rebuilt. Not quite like they were, because childish things have been put away. But they are rebuilt, on a foundation not merely of joy, but of that mixed bittersweet amalgam that makes us who we are. Our sense of self isn’t just what has made us happy, but what we have overcome. And our connections with others don’t arise just from the fun of childhood, but from the burdens we have shared, the challenges we have faced, and the pain we have endured.

After the foundation crumbles, and we are left fishing for that centering again, it takes both hands: that of Joy and of Sadness, pushing that button together to create that mixture of yellow and blue that supports the new grownup identity.

(So yes, count me among the number that got a little glassy behind those 3d glasses…)


Dickens was here first: 

I wrote a bit about the way that pain and sorrow make us who we are and teach us empathy in my bit on Charles Dickens' The Haunted Man. The original Star Trek characters would also explore this in The Final Frontier.  

A bit of music:

In case it wasn’t obvious, music has been meaningful to me (and one of those “identity islands”) as long as I can remember.

Also, as long as I can remember, the bittersweet has called to me in music. I love minor keys, and I love heart-rending sorrow expressed in words that cannot be uttered.

Thus, if you want to see me governed by Anger, in his little suit and tie, remind me of all that Gothard tried to take from me in his crusade against “evil” music. It was bad enough that Jazz and Rock and all their relatives were forbidden. (Because, well, racism.)

But he also had a problem with minor keys. Perhaps because such “negative” emotions were unacceptable. Needless to say, this was a problem for for me. Music has always been a cathartic experience for me, and I experience it viscerally when I play it. That’s why music was the one thing I clung to for dear life throughout the transition to adulthood and beyond.

So, in honor of the bittersweet, here are eight minor key pieces that have been part of my soundtrack. This is by no means a definitive list, or a list of my favorites. These are just the ones that came to mind most readily as having impacted me at key transitional times.

Empty Canvas by John Michael Talbot: 

Probably the first bittersweet song that I played to death in my childhood. Tune that guitar down to an open D. And really, the longing for communion with the Divine has haunted me ever since.

The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel: 

My dad’s teen theme song was I Am A Rock, but this was mine. Sure, it’s preachy. But sometimes I think it is even more relevant these days.

Isle of the Dead by Rachmaninoff: 

I got the opportunity to play some great pieces in my years with the Bakersfield College orchestra. I’ll never forget the chances I had to play solo parts: Danse Macabre, Vivaldi’s Spring, the Pas De Deux from Swan Lake, Albinoni’s Adagio, Grand Canyon, the Saint Saens Violin Concerto, and most of all Scheherezade, but I will never forget playing Isle of the Dead for the first time. That haunting tune in 5/4 time. That descant in the solo violin. The chorus welcoming the dead to the underworld, and then the fade to the silence of the River Styx as the waves lap the shore.  

Brahms’ Piano Concerto #2, third movement: 

Anyone who can listen to the 3rd movement of this piece, and not be moved, has a heart of stone indeed. We did this my first year with the BSO, with Anton Nel. [link]. Yes, I still remember it. Definitely my favorite piano concerto, although Mozart’s final concerto, in B flat comes close. (Also bittersweet, if in a major key.)

Mozart’s Symphony #40: 

Mozart has an undeserved reputation as a “light” composer. Sure, he wrote some light stuff, particularly in his teens. But underestimate his emotional depth at your own risk. I never get tired of the melancholy of #40.

Symphony #6 “Pathetique” by Tchaikovsky, fourth movement : 

Oh man. Heartrending and lacerating, and like nothing else. Maybe Mahler approaches it sometimes (and he had a lot of heartache), but Tchaikovsky wore his emotions on his sleeve. Is this despair, resignation, or something else. It was hard to come back after playing this one, particularly after the excess and vulgarity of the preceding movement. That garish plastered happy face and exaggerated jollity crashing down to such pain that it doesn’t end so much as fade into unutterable quiet.

Nothing Else Matters by Metallica: 

A more recent discovery, and my favorite Metallica song. Ultimately, to me, it represents the quest for truth and the Giver of Truth, despite the endless hypocrisy and game playing.

The Prodigal Son Suite by Keith Green: 

The ultimate in redemption, and another song that got me through childhood and the teens. A reminder that, ultimately, grace is undeserved, and doesn’t even make sense. It is a love that conquers all and defies all, and exemplifies that upside down kingdom.


  1. I posted a comment; not sure if it got through or not. Still trying to work out what works and what doesn't.


    Thanks for this post. "Inside Out" is now showing here but we haven't seen it yet. The trailer looks good. I don't mind spoilers before watching a movie (MOST of the time!) so reading your post was okay.

    I tend to think of Sadness -- and anything negative, really -- in this way: Without Sadness, how would we recognise Joy? Without Death, how would we know Life?

    Thanks for the music!

  2. I suggest you look up "Adam Again" if you've never heard of them.

    A few samples:
    "The Tenth Song"

    "River on Fire"

    1. I think I had heard the name, but none of the songs. Good stuff.