Inside Out and the Importance of Suffering

by Annalise Deal


Upon watching Disney-Pixar’s newest hit Inside Out this summer, I found myself overcome by the feeling that the producers of this film had portrayed my own experience of consciousness more accurately than any other fictional thing I have watched or read. I left the theater unable to exactly articulate why it seemed so accurate, but upon further reflection I think it was the development of the character of Sadness that led the the film’s overall profundity.

The story follows a young girl Riley, and the voices of various emotions inside her head. The voices: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger, narrate her experiences throughout childhood, and literally color her memories according to which emotion dominated it. Like a lot of American children, her memories are mostly dominated by Joy: scoring her first goal in hockey, frollicking in her small Minnesota town with neighbors, making goofy monkey noises at her dad, and cuddling with her mom. But when her family moves to San Francisco when she is twelve, things get a little more complicated. For a period of time, Joy is lost entirely, Sadness unexpectedly takes over what were once Joy-filled memories, and Anger, Disgust and Fear begin to lash out more regularly. Riley’s life seems to be in a downward spiral, and Joy must fight to regain control.


The problem though, as it turns out, is not that Joy is gone. It is that Joy never appreciated the importance of Sadness; she never understood that Sadness too could create bonds, and shape Riley’s personality. While Joy acknowledged Sadness’ presence, she failed to acknowledge her value.


Joy made the same mistake that I think Christians make all the time: she was unable to see the value of suffering. Often, it is easy to get caught up in the mistaken idea that God’s intention is for humans to be happy all the time. In the story of Lazarus’ death in John, we have an example of how Jesus himself dealt with his own version of Sadness. When Martha and Mary bring Jesus to see their dead brother Lazarus John says that Jesus “was deeply moved and spirit and troubled,”  and later, that “Jesus wept.” (John 11:33, 35)


Jesus does not try to limit the experience of grief, he validates the sister’s immense sorrow, and finds himself weeping with them. Yet without trying to make them simply happy again, Jesus points out the value of their grief: to give Mary and Martha great faith. He proceeds to pray for Lazarus’ revival, and then summons him back to life. Jesus does not invalidate their Sadness or make it any less real by resurrecting Lazarus, rather he uses the experience of suffering to build their faith in God, and to shape their character in a crucial way.


Though in our lives today, the purposefulness of Sadness experiences may not be so obvious, it is nonetheless still valuable. Of course, grief, sadness and sorrow are not enjoyable experiences that we actively seek out, but just because we don’t like experiencing them does not mean they don’t have value. Sadness is undeniably part of the universal human experiences, and as part of that set, we must strive to see its value, to make sense of its place in our lives.


In Romans, Paul takes this idea even further. He goes so far as to say we ought to “glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4) Paul makes it clear, that Christian life is not simply life that avoids hardship; faith in Jesus does not silence the voice of Sadness by some miraculous psychological realignment. Rather it means that we learn to view all of our emotions and experiences, including suffering and sadness, through a different lens.


At the end of Inside Out, Joy realizes that while temporarily Sadness seemed to make Riley’s life worse, she actually served to create greater depth and complexity of character. She learns to celebrate Sadness’ value as something that, in a different way than Joy, can likewise build character. The experience of shared sadness increases Riley’s love for her parents, and the experience of lonely sadness helps her to build a necessary autonomy that will carry her into adolescence.

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