Thursday, 30 July 2015

Inside Out: Mixing Joy and Sadness

I saw the Pixar film Inside Out last week and just cannot stop thinking about it. There were 100 sermons in that film—actually the film was, in essence, one big sermon. 

A seemingly innocent "children's movie," the premise is simple: we get a peek inside the mind of an 11-year old girl to meet her emotions: disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and anger. Throughout the film we see how those emotions battle each other, how they end up working together, and how, in the end, the girl's life is put back together when her parents acknowledge that her feelings of sadness are real, valid, and shared. 

The "morality message" of the film is clear: we will have—nay, we even need— some sadness in our lives so that others reach out to us in empathy and love and so that we ourselves grow and change. Professors of psychology Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman, the scientific consultants on the film, write: “In real life, one person’s sadness pulls other people in to comfort and help.” Unmitigated, unending joy is annoying, unrealistic, and superficial. Let's be honest: we'd all like all joy all the time and we erroneously believe that if we squash the other feelings—disgust, fear, anger and sadness—we will have it. But one thing every basic psychology textbook will tell you is that joy can only be real when it is part of a whole spectrum and panoply of emotions.

Avoiding pain seems to be our society's number one goal. We feel a need to "cheer someone up" when they have suffered a loss or been through a challenging time. People avoid going to shiva calls because they don't know what to say in the face of all that sadness. In the book of Job, the quintessential Biblical story of sadness—it's about a man who loses everything good in his life—Job's friends try and "comfort" him in the face of his loss. They toss phrases of artificial joy his way: "it could be worse!"  What they should have done instead is empathize, and admit with him just how hard life can be. 
The Jewish calendar is a perfect example of the mature mixture of joy and sadness. We move from the saddest holiday of the year when we commemorate the destruction of both Temples, Tishe B'av (observed just two weeks ago) to the happiest holiday of the year, Rosh Hashana. We move from a solemn day of reflection and self-judgement, Yom Kippur, to a day of dancing and singing, Simchat Torah. On Yom Kippur itself we move from the memorial service of Yizkor in the morning to the raucous and joyful ending of the final service of Neilah. In real life, there is "a time to laugh and a time to mourn" as it says in the book of Ecclesiastes.

Obviously I understand that sadness taken to an extreme—depression, anxiety, apathy—are not healthy. It is managing our sadness that makes us strong. That is why, for example, the period of intense mourning for a loved one is never longer than 11 months. One year less a month, not even a full year. NOT that we are supposed to "move on" and forget the loss; rather, that we are supposed to start learning how to manage the loss and live with, around, and despite the sadness.

During the film there is a clever use of "core memories"— pictured as small rolling balls— that help bring joy to the 11 year old. But interestingly, when sadness touches one of the core memories, it doesn't shatter or even disappear. It is also collected into the storehouse of memory and that core experience, touched by sadness, becomes part of who we are. That piece of the film made me think of my mother Terry who suffered "two deaths," the first when Alzheimer's robbed her of those core memories, and the second her actual physical passing. The loss of my mom reflected the duality I speak of above, as she had a very joyous and successful life although her last years were agonizing for us. And while I was very sad, I received much joy from the comfort of many of you, as well as from the strong and beautiful life she lived. It was the embodiment of joy and sadness intermingling—I'd say even cooperating

In Judaism, there is a teaching that every person has within them two inclinations: a yetzer hatov (the inclination towards doing the right thing) and a yetzer hara (the inclination towards doing the wrong thing.) These two inclinations live together, sometimes battling and sometimes cooperating. Sometimes one wins and sometimes the other. Sometimes one is dominant and sometimes the other. The two sides make us fully human, as do the full array of emotions we feel. Too bad Pixar can't make a Jewish version of Inside Out with those two characters, but I imagine joy and sadness to look very similar to the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara. 

The strength of Judaism is that it recognizes our full humanity and gives us a way to think about how we manifest that humanity from the Inside Out.