“Do you ever look at someone and wonder what’s going on inside them?”
So, begins the latest animated wonder from Pixar studios, “Inside Out.” And it offers up a nice premise for a coming-of-age story that will take up the next hour and a half or so on screen, as well as a good prompt to some deep conversations that we all are in need of right now, especially when the topic before us is “forgiveness.”
That opening line is spoken by Joy, the first of five animated emotions that we will hear from in this tale of Riley Anderson, an 11-year-old girl who after a happy childhood in Minnesota finds her life disrupted by a cross-country move to San Francisco, where her father is taking a job at a digital start-up company.
It’s a lovely notion, supported by the raft of social scientists who consulted on the film, that our natal emotion, that first feeling that emerges at birth is a sense of joy. Oh, life! What a wonder, what a miracle! What bliss just to be!
Of course, it doesn’t take long for others to make their presence known as well. Anger appears when hunger first rumbles in our bellies, fear when we’re confronted with the unfamiliar, disgust when those first foods are offered, and sadness when we’re not attended to in the way we want.
You could argue that other feelings ought to be represented, too: say, curiosity, or wonder. I expect you could name some. But the writers pleaded that too many characters would mix up the story line. OK, fine.
The film makes the interesting point that every experience we have is colored in some way by our feelings. We remember them that way – experiences that were happy or sad, or that maybe left us feeling angry or fearful. That’s part of how we store them.
Too, the intensity of the emotion has something to do with their valence, their strength. Some experiences are so strong they become what the film calls core memories, and they help create islands of emotional identity.
Up to this point in her life, the film says, Riley has been lucky enough that her islands are largely joyous ones. There is “goof ball,” representing her silly side, which she or her parents trigger with monkey imitations. Then, there’s hockey, a skill she learned on those Minnesota lakes, and strongest of all, family.
Every one of these islands, though, gets tested by the move to San Francisco – a place that Riley is assured will be beautiful and fun, but that she finds to be uncomfortable and foreign.
While all this is going on, there’s also a lot of turmoil going on inside Riley’s head. Joy, as usual, is trying to be the cruise director, keeping things light and fun, but not all the other feelings are on board. In particular, sadness, usually so quiet and unassuming, is playing around with some of the memories where joy feels she has no business. Particularly she seems drawn to some of those joyous core memories, which, when she touches them, begin to turn sad.
Alarmed, joy tries protecting them, and in the back and forth between them, both joy and sadness – together with some core memories – are transported away of “headquarters,” Riley’s consciousness. The rest of the film is devoted to them finding their way back to set things right, while Riley struggles with the inability to access her feelings of joy and sadness.
It’s a clever way of framing how disruptions in our lives can turn things upside down. Even as grown-ups, when things go wrong we try to be calm and reasonable, but we struggle with emotions inside us that are raging. Part of growing up, we learn, is coming to terms with those feelings but not necessarily letting them drive us.
Even more, we come to learn how to recognize feelings in others and how to respond to them effectively. The film offers us an example of a not-especially-effective response, when at the dinner table Riley responds to a question from her parents in anger. Inside her father we watch his emotions undergo something like the launch sequence of a thermonuclear weapon, ending with him “putting the foot down” by shouting at her and banishing her to her room.
It’s clear, though, that that display doesn’t accomplish much, and later he goes to Riley’s room seeking to smooth the waters. He tries engaging “goof ball” island, but he gets no response. Indeed, inside Riley we see goof ball island crumble and fall into the pit of erased memories.
It’s an excruciating moment in the film and a reminder of how fluid our emotional lives can be. In Riley’s case, goof ball island was something that was likely to go anyway as she grew older, but going as it did with no other positive core memory to replace it makes her vulnerable. We watch as joy and sadness scramble for a way back to Riley’s consciousness while Riley struggles with anger and fear driving her responses as each remaining island crumbles apart and tumbles away.
Joy is positively frantic: if only she could find a way back, she is sure she could fix things. But she has an awakening: along their travels through Riley’s memories, she and sadness come upon Riley’s one-time imaginary friend – Bing Bong – a manic combination of elephant, cat and dolphin. Bing Bong helps them along the way, but he becomes despondent when the wagon that was his magical transport is taken away.
Joy tries to cheer him up without success, but then sadness comes to the rescue. She simply sits with Bing Bong – “You lost your wagon,” she says. “You’re sad.” He agrees, and after crying for a minute, he’s ready to move on.
So, it’s worth our spending a little time thinking about what sadness brings to the mix of our emotions. Rilke offers an interesting insight in his letter that we excerpted earlier. Could we see beyond the limits of our knowledge, he says, “we would endure our sadnesses with greater confidence than our joys.” Now, how’s that? It is, he says, because these are moments when something new, something alien enters us.
Sadness in that sense is a kind of reality check. We are sailing along, everything’s great, and then we are confronted in some way with something that catches us short, that trips us up. When that happens, we can, of course, respond in many ways. We can get mad about it, ignore it, or run away from it. Each of these responses, though, has within it an element of denial, of failing to acknowledge the loss we’ve experienced.
Rilke urges the young poet receiving his letters not to do that. Confronted with sadness, he urges him to be “lonely and attentive.” Sit with it, he says. Examine it. Treat it as the gift it is. Be patient and open to its teaching.
Of course, few of us want to spend much time with sadness. Like joy in the film, we’d like to be distracted, cheered up. Yet, at the center of our sadness may be an important learning – a way we’ve overreached or exceeded our grasp, or perhaps our first clear understanding of how deep a loss we’ve received is to us. We say we’re fine, we’ll be OK, but to move on with our lives we need at least for a moment to sit with the full truth and full impact of, say, a promise broken, a dream lost, a relationship damaged, a loved one gone.
We’ve heard of people who say, “I don’t dare cry because if I start crying, I’ll never stop.” But, of course, we all do. It just feels hard to give ourselves over to it. But hope of healing lies on the other side. I think Rilke offers some wisdom here.
“You must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than anything you have seen,” he says. In fact, that response is part of your own psyche guiding you through. It is not that “life has forgotten you.” Quite the opposite. It is your life, your inner wisdom that is “holding your hand,” taking you where you need to go. Not to fear, he consoles his reader, “it will not let you fall.”
Likewise, at the center of any act of forgiveness is a moment of sorrow, where each person – the one injured and the one who caused the injury – acknowledges the loss, the injury, the failure to act as we should.
It, too, is a kind of reality check. Try as we do to be good people, we come up short. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge both the injury we give as the perpetrator and the wound we experience as the recipient. Yet, we can’t hope to restore our own peace of mind or to heal the relationship that was damaged until we have attended to it.
Here is the great wisdom in the Jewish Days of Awe, the passage from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur when Jews give and receive forgiveness and make atonement for the wrongs they have done to each other. The words that we sang earlier from of the Gates of Repentance, the Jewish prayer book for this time, lay it out.
Who of us can claim to be pure of heart, untouched by or unresponsible for wrongs to others or ourselves. There is none on earth. It is a sad truth for us all. Yet, renewal is possible for each of us: a new resolve, a new attitude, deeper compassion, authentic humility. All that’s required is that we sit for a bit with the sadness of this rift in our lives, and then act: give and receive forgiveness, offer and accept atonement.
So, poor Riley! Driven by anger, fear and disgust, she is led to a potentially disastrous decision. (For those of you who haven’t seen the movie I’ll leave you in suspense as to what that decision is.) As she barrels ahead, the emotions in her head realize what a mess they’ve made but can’t seem to do anything to stop it.
Through some funny and dramatic circumstances, though, joy and sadness make their way back to the headquarters of Riley’s consciousness. The other emotions look to joy, once again, as the fixer, but joy, instead, turns to sadness to do her work. And it is sadness that breaks through, that provides Riley the reality check she needs to show her the rashness and foolishness of her choice.
Riley makes it home to her frantic parents and then collapses into tears, confessing all the worries, fears and disappointments that she has held inside, how much she misses her old home and the life that she loved. And her parents chime in, too, admitting their own sadness, something they hadn’t confessed up until now. And they settle into a prayerful group hug of grateful unity.
So might we conclude our own inside out journeys to forgiveness, the sometimes painful passage that teaches us to sit with our sadness and then act, take ownership of where we have erred and seek forgiveness for our deeds.
As the Gates of Repentance put it: May we now forgive, atone that we may live. May we now forgive that we may live.
My friends, I confess to you that in the past year I have at times fallen short of your hopes and expectations of me. It makes me sad to think of and yet resolved to be more measured and intentional in my commitments, more compassionate in my dealings , and more understanding of the needs of others.
Please forgive me. I forgive you. Let us begin again in love.