Friday, August 28, 2015

Interior Landscapes : Part 2

Recently we have been on two family evenings out: first to the theatre, to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; and, a week later, to the cinema to see Inside Out. Both are intense depictions of interior landscapes, taking the audience inside the heads of the protagonists. Both were excellent.

Inside Out is the latest offering from Disney Pixar. A girl called Riley grows up in Minnesota, and we witness her life through the interaction of five emotions that have come to life in her mind – Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger. These emotions have their own personality, and their own particular role to play at the console that influences Riley’s actions. Joy is Riley’s dominant, or driving, emotion, keeping everything as happy as possible; Disgust ensures that Riley will not be poisoned, physically (broccoli, anyone?) or metaphorically; Fear helps to keep her out of danger; and Anger is concerned with fairness and injustice; but none of the emotions seem to understand Sadness’ purpose.

The emotions colour memories (joy, yellow; sadness, blue; disgust, green; fear, purple; anger, red) which are harvested and stored; including ‘core memories’ which have a special role in powering ‘Islands of Personality’ (over her childhood, Riley has built up five aspects of her personality: Family Island, Honesty Island, Hockey island, Friendship Island, and Goofball Island). At age eleven, all of Riley’s core memories are coloured by Joy.

When she is eleven, Riley’s life is turned up-side-down when her dad takes a new business opportunity in San Francisco and she must move with her parents to California.

This traumatic experience results in an unfolding series of disasters, as Riley’s inner world falls apart. Her core memories are disconnected and, without them, her personality falls apart, island (aspect) by island. Joy and Sadness are swept off in an epic quest to restore order – an imaginative re-setting of the Odyssey. The remaining emotions try their best to help Riley regain emotional balance but without the presence of Joy and Sadness, she finds herself increasingly cut-off from her childhood friends, new peers, and her parents.

On their adventures, Joy learns the purpose of Sadness – alerting others to Riley’s need for them to reach out to her, and help her. After many dangers have been overcome, the exiled pair return home to Headquarters, and new core memories are created, establishing and powering new Islands of Personality. Now, however, Riley’s core memories are coloured by blended emotions; and, far from contaminating them – as Joy had at first believed – this makes them more beautiful, and more resilient.

By the end of the film, as Riley reaches her twelfth birthday, the console has been upgraded to include many more, more nuanced, responses; and her Islands have been rebuilt, bigger and stronger, and with additional islands expressing newly-developing aspects of her personality as she stands on the edge of Puberty.

Inside Out is a wonderful film – as one would expect from the master story-tellers at Pixar. It is a great family film, one that gives us tools to understand our emotions, and gives insight in how to share life with emotional intelligence, at a level that children and parents alike can engage.

Inside Out affirms that our emotions are good. All of them. From a faith perspective, I agree: the range of emotions are part of how God has created us, and are to be affirmed as a good gift. All of them.

The Bible is full of expressions of joy, exhorting us to be deeply thankful; the insight that those who mourn (who experience sadness) will receive a particular blessing, of experiencing comfort, that is not available to others; and righteous anger that powers acts of compassion. But disgust is also there, connected to the ‘purity laws’ which, rightly understood, are signposts to a way of living free from the contamination of shame; and so is fear, causing us to respect the untameable freedom of God. (In fact, reading Bible stories paying attention to the emotions we find there is a great way to read them, especially with children.)

Famously, it is said that we are told “Do not be afraid!” 365 times in the Bible, once for every day of the year. This does not mean that fear is not a good and God-given emotion, but that when fear operates in excess, or dominating our thoughts, this does not serve us well. It should be obvious that fear is the most fearful of the emotions, the one needing the most encouragement to be brave, to have trust.

Which leads to another observation, that our emotions are limited – limited in their role, and limited in their insight. Riley’s emotions grow and mature with her – tentatively, falteringly – but have a particular purpose; and must come to understand their place within a bigger and incredibly complex interior world which also includes (among other things) imagination, rational thought, dreams, long-term memory and memory loss. The emotions must be schooled.

Thankfully, our emotions can be trained – trained to help pull together rather than pull apart, and trained to engage with others constructively rather than destructively. The Odyssey is no accidental template here: there is wisdom that has stood the test of time in the progression from a robustly-affirming experience of life, through the loss of that life, and the testing of our soul, to the return that transcends life as it was (Riley’s core memories are restored, but now they are coloured by more than one emotion), a return that is both homecoming (Riley is reconciled with her mom and dad) and departure on a new adventure (embracing her new life in San Francisco, rather than returning to Minnesota). Inevitably, albeit counter-intuitively, the loss of all familiar landmarks is unavoidable in this process, must be navigated and not circumvented.

From time to time throughout the film, we see the emotions at the consoles of other characters – Riley’s mom and dad; and, throughout the closing credits, those of many other characters who have played smaller parts in the story. Two things are suggested: firstly, that for most of us there is one dominant or driving emotion, rather than a collegiate approach; and secondly, that most of us pay very little attention to our emotions at all, allowing them to operate us. There is clearly a degree of stereotyping here, for the sake of simplicity and for the sake of humour. Nonetheless, it begs the question, have we settled for a mere existence rather than the fullness of life we were created to know?

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