Sunday, August 2, 2015

On "Inside Out" and the Necessity of Tears

Confession: I'm a fairly emotional guy. The feeling of tears entering the corners of my eyes, wetting the surface with empathy and pathos--this is a normal sensation for me. (In fact, one of the strongest indicators I was experiencing burnout months ago was due to an emotional numbness and lack of such tears.) So it was both surprising and affirming to walk out of Pixar's latest film, Inside Out, and send the following Tweet:

Inside Out follows the five primary emotions--Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust--inside the mind of Riley, a girl navigating two painful transitions: the external transition of moving across the country, and the internal transition from childhood to adulthood.

The film, to use a cliche film critic term, is a triumph. It celebrates strong and intelligent female protagonists, both inside and outside of Riley's mind. The creativity expressed in the world-building is remarkable, and scenes inside the memory and subconscious of Riley are witty and enjoyable, with plenty of "cognitive" and brain-related jokes; I particularly loved a brief sequence in a tunnel for "abstract thinking" involving deconstruction and various dimensions. And who doesn't love a kids' film that makes allusions to film classics like Chinatown and Vertigo in its humor? (Side note: the short film Lava preceding Inside Out in theaters is just about the worst film Pixar has ever made. I nearly cried at how terrible it was.)

Inside Out is an excellent film about coming of age, the gift of being a parent, and the power of community and friendship. All of these themes are brought together in Inside Out's primary idea: the gift and power of all our emotions, even the ones we tend neglect. The emotion of Joy is clearly the leader inside Riley's mind, with Sadness often relegated to the margins in order for Joy to keep Riley happy. Yet when Riley is confronted with a very difficult situation--moving across the country to a new home--Sadness and Joy need to become co-laborers in serving Riley.

In his insightful essay on Inside Out, Matt Zoller Seitz offers a defense of sadness:
This movie is saying, "Listen to Sadness. Sadness is important. Sadness has something to teach you." "Inside Out" stands in opposition to an entire culture that tells people that happiness is the highest, best and sometimes only permissible emotion, and that sadness is an obstacle to being happy, and that we should concentrate all of our emotional and cultural energy on trying to eradicate sadness so that everyone can be happy.
As an advocate for sadness, Inside Out is a prophetic call to our "everything is fine" culture, inviting us to embrace the wisdom of our tears. In this film, while the two are initially foils, ultimately "Sadness is not the opposite of Joy, she's her partner." We need both happiness and sadness to be holistic beings. Tears are not only natural, they are deeply healing and vital to our spiritual lives. Professor MaryKate Morse writes the following about the power of tears in her helpful resource, A Guidebook to Prayer:
Tears reflect the entire human gamut of life experiences: grief, connection, despair, joy, frustration, anger and even physical stress. Crying is a significant human function.... Tears cannot be ignored. If someone is crying, everyone notices. Crying is an expression of powerlessness, if it is authentic and not manipulative. When we cry, it is a defining moment.... Tears uncover our life. Pretense is not possible. Masks fall off. Tears connect with the most primal part of our lives and tears connect us with others. Tears soften our hearts and open our minds.
I'm still struck by the simple profundity of her words: tears cannot be ignored. If a person is quietly sobbing on the subway across our way, weeping into their knees on a curb as we stroll past, or wiping their eyes at any social gathering, we cannot help but notice. Tears--particularly, tears due to sadness and grief--elicit a remarkable empathy. When we cannot cry, we cannot wholly love. When we authentically weep with those who weep, we practice the self-giving love of Christ.

Inside Out recognizes the value and necessity of all emotions and desires. I grew up in a conservative family context where conversations about emotions nearly always turned to the verse in Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" Emotions were not to be trusted, and being overly emotional was paralleled with being sinful or self-deceived. For an emotional guy like me, this always rang false, and led more to shame and sin management than genuine spiritual freedom. So it was refreshing to read the same prophet, Jeremiah, wrote about God's covenant love for His people, and how He would write His law on their hearts, this prophet who is called "the weeping prophet." Ezekiel writes, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (36:26). The psalms of David reveal a wide range of emotions, from joy to anger to fear to disgust to sadness. When reading the gospel accounts, it turns out Jesus is also an emotional person--he gets angry, he becomes saddened and distressed, he is joyful and excited, he is determined, he may even be fearful. As one reads the whole canon of Scripture, it appears that the full range of human emotions are normative, even healthy. Certainly they can lead us astray into sinful territory, but the profound example of Jesus allows us to embrace our emotions as good gifts from the Creator, not unnecessary cognitive baggage we need to stuff away.

I am learning to embrace my own emotional propensity, to allow myself to cry when the tears form in my eyes. We can neither stuff the feelings down into the recesses of our subconscious, nor can we allow ourselves to be overtaken by emotions, led along like a crazed roller coaster of passion and sentiment. That's the unique beauty of Inside Out--the emotions never fully control or dominate the person they inhabit. The human being is ultimately responsible for their actions and choices. The emotions react to Riley just as much as Riley reacts to her emotions; it is a beautiful dialogue between emotion, thought, action, and contemplation. We're not to ignore or disregard our emotions, but neither are we to simply "follow our feelings" without any sense of personal accountability or self-control.

Like Inside Out, we can recognize the goodness of emotions and desires, embracing the whole gamut--Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness--as a family of feelings residing inside our minds and hearts. We can laugh because we have a Creator who also expresses joy. We can cry because we have a Lord who is heart broken when His people turn away from Him. We can become angry, because while the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in love, His sense of justice often piques a righteous anger when the weak and marginalized are oppressed. We may experience fear, but we have a God who calmly and graciously reminds us in Scripture, "do not be afraid." We must become disgusted with our own sinful desires in order to repent and turn towards the one who will never look at us in disgust.

If you end up crying when you see Inside Out, it's okay. Embrace the tears of empathy. Jesus wept. We can, too.

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