Growing Up: What Religion Can Learn From the Magic of Inside Out

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Let’s talk about Inside Out again. But this time we are not just going to talk in the superficial, “go see it” kind of way we did last time. Now it’s time for real talk.

Storytelling and Canvas Building
Movies can be diversions or just pure entertainment, but sometimes movies can be so much more. There are movies that illustrate grand important ideas in a new way that pushes culture and society forward. To me, this is the peak of storytelling. When the story itself is not really the thing the story is saying, because the thing the story is saying is so much bigger than the story, we experience a sort of storytelling magic.

Too often, fiction undermines reality. I’ll never forget this quip from Rabbi Tendler during a private study session. “If you expect marriage to be the way marriage is portrayed in novels and films, you’re going to be waiting a long time for the violins.” In context, he was teaching me that relationships take work and popular culture is not very good at real relationships. Generally, we watch saccharine caricatures of real life with simple resolutions, over-emphasis on raw feelings, and of course, violins.

I love when fiction does not try to rewrite reality. I love when fiction tells us something about reality. Done right, a movie can be a powerful storytelling device that helps us to understand and deal with reality. Fiction can be real.

A Movie of Biblical Proportions
Inside Out is not a very interesting story. There’s no villain, except maybe “the passing of time” and most of the story happens inside the head of an 11 year old girl named Riley. A lot of people seem to think that the movie is about the voices inside Riley. But the movie is not about the voices inside Riley’s head at all. They are just part of the canvas the real story of Inside Out is painting.

The brilliance of Inside Out is its lesson. Its mini lessons along the way are amazing. The way it teaches its lessons, using its internal metaphors and symbolism, is much more than brilliance, it is almost Biblical.

I think the primary lesson of Inside Out is profoundly simple. We have all been misled to believe that happiness is the cumulative feeling of avoiding pain, sadness, misery, and doubt. That is a lie. Happiness and joy are not the absence of bad experiences at all. In fact, without negative experiences, there is no joy. Children are not mature enough to understand this sophisticated point even if it is taught directly. Children deal with emotions and feelings in a very binary way. Things are either good or bad.

The real world is not like this at all.insideout-640 Everything in our lives is a complex cocktail of contributory emotions. A little bit happy, a little bit sad, a little bit angry, a little bit worried, a little bit thrilled, and all at different levels. The first time we feel these complexities, it can be disconcerting. Adolescents are often brooding, moody, unpredictable, and sometimes their personalities are very different than they were as children. Part of that is the discomfort with encountering reality and perhaps even the real self. Inside Out is a parable that helps us understand the challenge of growing up from a child to an adult.

The New ‘A Separate Peace’
The fear and loathing of meeting one’s real self is the theme of one of my favorite books, A Separate Peace. It’s a mediocre story, but the story is not really the thing the story is saying. A Separate Peace is about adolescence, and facing one’s true self. That’s what it’s really about.

Inside Out is working on a different angle. The movie is helping us be honest with ourselves about what really makes us happy. Inside Out shows us that the best feelings and best emotions are a mixture of joy, anger, disgust, fear, and even sadness. In fact, Joy was only able to return to Riley because of Sadness. Acknowledging our sadness gives us the opportunity for happiness, not avoiding sadness. It wasn’t only Sadness, it was also letting go of childhood by saying goodbye to her imaginary childhood friend, Bing Bong. It’s counterintuitive at first, but just past the initial superficial level, lies this obvious truth. There is no happiness without sadness and there is no growing up without letting go of childhood.

These ideas are almost glibly demonstrated during Inside Out. But don’t let the simplicity of the way Inside Out teaches its lessons fool you into thinking these are not sophisticated and meaningful teachings.

Once Riley’s feelings are able to work together to craft more meaningful memories, their control panel console grows. Children only experience one feeling at a time and only one feeling can be in charge at any given moment. When we grow up, each feeling has a seat at the table and they all work together instead of jockeying for control. This is the primary lesson of Inside Out.

Some Bonus Lessons
Along the way, Inside Out creates a magnificent storytelling device that gives the writers opportunities to teach so many more lessons that are tangential to the story. Inside Out sees our memories as sources of power for several islands in Riley’s brain. Each island represents a fundamental group of memories and experiences that Riley “visits” during nostalgic moments. The internal logic of the movie kicks Joy and Sadness out of Riley consciousness following a traumatic experience. Joy and Sadness find themselves marooned far away from headquarters. Their path back to headquarters is along the connection between headquarters and the islands. As Riley destroys her islands by poisoning her memories with rebellion, the path through Family Island remains Joy’s last hope. But when Riley kills Honesty Island, the paths to headquarters are all gone. I thought this was an incredible, subtle message about the importance of honesty. As long we are honest with others and ourself there is a path back.

Another amazing lesson was perhaps the most explicit moral of all. Bing Bong is feeling very sad and Joy tries every trick in the book to cheer him up. She is doing everything she can do to overpower Bing Bong’s sad feelings with her intense joy. It does not work. Sadness sits down next to Bing Bong and just listens to him tell her how he feels. Sadness tells him that she totally understands why he is sad and offers a hug and shoulder to cry on. That works. Joy is flabbergasted. Sadness explains that she saw he was sad so she just wanted him to know that she understands.

Later in the movie, Riley and her parents share a tender moment when they are honest with each other about how they feel. No one tries to fix their sadness or anxiety. They simply hear each other and enjoy a loving family hug.

Too often, we think the way to help a sad friend is to cheer them up. But I think it’s always more helpful to just listen, understand, and offer a warm hug and shoulder to cry on.

There are many additional teachings sprinkled though Inside Out. A few memorable moments stand out. My favorite might be when a box labeled “Opinions” and box labeled “Facts” spill over and the contents get mixed up. “Oh no!” exclaims Joy, “these facts and opinions look so similar!” “People are always getting these mixed up,” says Bing Bong. Indeed, they do.

Who Cares?!
Why am I talking about Inside Out? Is there a point to all this?

Good question. Yes, there is a point to all this Inside Out talk. Two major points, in fact. One from the negative perspective and one from a positive perspective.

We are all Riley. Those of us are religious Rileys have an additional island of memories in our brain. Religious Riley has Religion Island. That’s where all our religious memories live. For most children, Religion Island should be pretty sweet. Kids love religion. It’s fun. The stories are interesting. The food is familiar. You spend more time with parents and family. Religion Island is awesome when you’re a kid. I think it’s important to actively create this sweetness for our families and communities.

Religious Trauma
Inside Out showed us how trauma shatters our childhood islands. When pain and sadness infect our religious nostalgia, we are destroying Religious Island. Some trauma is a direct result of religious experience and other trauma is unrelated to the religious experience. Any trauma can wreck Religion Island. This can happen even against our own wishes.

Religious leaders who seek to hide or inhibit public conversation about religious leaders who stumble or other flaws in their community, for fear of encouraging religious reprisal., or worse, are missing the point. It’s not the knowledge of bad behavior that harms people, it’s the trauma itself. Trauma severs the relationship between the person and the positive memories. Hearing about it does not do that at all. I think the Religious Island Destroyed by Trauma metaphor severely undermines the strategy of silencing criticism or victims of abuse.

More importantly, it explains why most of the people who leave their religious communities, don’t find comfort in a less strict religious community. Their religious island is gone. This new place is not the old place. The new place feels fraudulent and fake. The trust is gone. But that does not mean it’s the end of the story.

There is also something incredible hopeful about the way Inside Out portrayed how Riley rebuilt her islands. True, the islands were completely useless following the trauma Riley experienced. But the movie shows us those islands restored and thriving even more than they were before they were broken. We also see added complexity to Riley’s islands and they are being powered by the new core memory cocktails of mixed feelings.

Often enough, people want to rebuild their dilapidated or broken religious islands. Somehow, Religion Island was destroyed for them at some point.  Eventually, they might want to reassemble their religious islands. But reconstruction is not possible using those old simple memories that are generally good. The cotton candy version of religion is gone for these people, but building something new, with complexity, embracing ambiguity, and engaging in their struggles, is absolutely available. It takes work, but it might be worth the effort.

Consciousness and Construction
I think most conscious people have had their dreamlike childhood memories smashed. They might have felt real in the moment, but they are not reality. The real world is complex and confusing and contradictory. Real lasting relationships are built out of mixed core memory cocktails. Relationships between us and our spirituality, between us and our religion, between us and our community, our family, our spouse, our parents, our children, and ourselves, all can function, blissfully unaware, in rainbow, lollipop, and unicorn mode. In that mode, they are super fragile and they might collapse in a quick heap. But all our relationships function on a much higher level if we are conscious of the relationship and its complexity. They improve, when the parties to a relationship make the effort to build after something has been broken.

This secret to living is the soul of one important message in Inside Out. It’s applicable to religion, but it’s just as applicable to friendship, courtship, marriage, self awareness, and any other relationship. We start with only childish nostalgia. It might break one day and that will hurt, a lot. But moving past our childish nostalgia is not bad or evil, it’s just growing up.

It’s about time too. After all those years of hinting to us that we should try to just be a kid and stay young forever, Disney Pixar is telling us that it’s also time to grow up – from the inside, out.

“I love when fiction does not try to rewrite reality. I love when fiction tells us something about reality. Done right,…

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Wednesday, June 24, 2015

  • MarkSoFla

    The mixing up of facts and opinions was also one of my favorite parts 🙂