Learning about ourselves…

… from the Inside Out.

The last ten to fifteen years has been hard on a movie lover in America. Michael Bay became a thing. Judd Apatow became a thing. Sequelitis became an even bigger thing than it already was, and sequels, as we all know, aren’t as good as the original, which is bad when the original wasn’t very good in the first place.

So, these days, I wait for two things — Christopher Nolan and Pixar.

Nolan delivers big-budget, big-idea, adult (in the “you’re going to have be grown up and wrestle with some hard things” sense, not the “let me see how raunchy and gross I can be” sense) movies with as little CGI as possible. His Batman trilogy weren’t just great Batman or superhero movies, they were great movies, period. Inception might be my favorite movie of the last ten years. And Interstellar, his latest, rivaled 2001 in terms of mind-blowing science fiction.

Which brings us to Pixar. If there’s ever been a movie studio that’s had a stronger decade then Pixar did from Toy Story through The Incredibles, I have yet to hear about it. However, I’m on record elsewhere as being disappointed with their recent direction as seen in their last three movies: Cars 2, one of those bad sequels of a not very good original; Brave, a very pedestrian coming-of-age story, and Monsters University, an only decent prequel of a brilliant first film. Had they lost it? Had Disney beaten all of Pixar’s creativity out of them in their (Disney’s) all-consuming desire for “franchises”?

Apparently not completely.

Inside Out is, in a one word review, brilliant. It is a reminder of everything that makes us love movies. It is an animated film, but I barely noticed. (I noticed it at the beginning, when they first show Riley as a baby, and I thought “Holy cow, that looks like a baby!“) It is a film every parent should see, and own, and watch annually until their children turn ten, whereupon they (the parents) should start watching it monthly.

(It’s possible there are some slight spoilers ahead. You have been warned. Regardless, the rest of the discussion assumes you’ve seen the movie. Which you should have done already, anyway. If you haven’t, bookmark this and go see it right now. Have some popcorn for me. I’ll still be here when you get back.)

Riley is an eleven-year old girl whose thoughts we get to see from the … well, you know. Inside her brain, the control center is run by a team of emotions: Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness, but Joy is clearly in charge. In looking around at the marbles of memories everywhere, they’re almost all gold, Joy’s color. (Anger is of course red; Sadness is of course blue; Disgust is of course the color of broccoli; and, interestingly, Fear is purple, a combination of red and blue, a subject’s that’s probably worthy of its own post someday.)

But something is amiss in Riley’s brain. Where before memories that Sadness touched only turned a little blue, and only as long as she held them, suddenly they’re turning completely blue, and permanently. Joy can’t have that — she can’t have Sadness ruining all of Riley’s joyful memories. The rest of the movie is Joy’s, and our, journey to discovering that she is no longer in charge, that Sadness has her place in Riley’s thoughts, and that Riley will be stronger, and better, for it.

It is a journey that a large number of Americans never appear to take. We collectively seem to think that we are born to be happy, all the time, and that anything that doesn’t make us happy is bad, and needs to be eliminated, or avoided altogether. Sadness has no place in our world view.

It is a journey that a large number of (American?) Christians never appear to take, either. I’m reminded of someone who told my wife and I years ago that she was divorcing her husband of two years because “God wants me to be happy.” We tried to explain that God was far more interested in her holiness than her happiness, but to no avail. (To be clear, I’ve made the same kind of choice many, many times in my life.)

What Joy, and Riley, discovered, is that Sadness not only has her place, she is necessary; without her, we won’t leave something behind, and if we never leave anything behind, we never grow. It is for this reason we nod our heads knowingly during one of the pivotal scenes of the movie — in order to go forward, something has to be left behind.

The movie also shows us that Sadness’ place is often at Joy’s side, and the two together make for a formidable pair. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this. Toward the end of his novel Lord of the Rings, as the fellowship celebrate the destruction of the ring, Tolkein wrote what may be my favorite paragraph in all of literature.

“And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”

In the midst of their merriment and tears… wounded with sweet words… their joy was like swords… pain and delight flow together… tears are the very wine of blessedness. Five times in that one paragraph Tolkein alludes to what Inside Out tells us in a very different way — Joy and Sadness are often, even in the best of times, inseparable.

How do we grow up? We embrace the sadness that hovers on the edges of our joy, and we look for (and usually find) the joy that lives in the midst of our sadness. We recognize that a touch of sadness makes our joy stronger, and we learn joy makes our sadness bearable. We acknowledge God has made us in His image, and that He has joy (creation) mixed with sadness (our rejection of Him) mixed with sadness/joy (our reconciliation found in Jesus’ death and resurrection).1

Two of my favorite voices in music, Karen Carpenter and Rich Mullins, both had a palpable sense of melancholy in everything they sang. We sensed, even then, before we knew what we know now, that their “pain and delight flowed together,” and we saw that the result came out in music that “wounded us with sweet words”.

It is fitting, therefore, that we let Rich have the final word.

Joy and sorrow are His ocean
And in their every ebb and flow
Now the Lord a door has opened
That all hell could never close


  1. Let’s not argue about whether God feels joy/sadness — forgive me a bit of anthropomorphism for the sake of an illustration.

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