Sometimes we read something, and it simply jumps off of the page. Most of 20 years ago I began reading the Lenten meditations of N.T. Wright, and these words caught my heart.
“We discover that the story of Jesus’ ministry is not only the story of what he did in history, but encompasses also the vocation that comes to us in the present: that we should be, in the power of the Spirit, the presence of Jesus for the whole world. This discovery brings the most remarkable joy and the most remarkable sorrow. This is our vocation: to take up our cross, and be Jesus for the whole world, living with the joy and the sorrow woven into the pattern of our days.
So last night we entered into the world of Pixar’s “Inside Out.” The story of a girl whose family moves from Minnesota to California, driving across the glory of the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco, slowly, slowly we begin to understand that we are being given a window into the human heart, full of complexity it is, born of pushes-and-pulls from many different places, clamoring in their various ways for our attention.
Anger. Fear. Disgust. Sadness. Joy. There is more to us, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are, but this is a broad-brush stroke account of the way we see, and why we see the way we see. Cartoonish, and yet real. True, but not exhaustively true.
And while all of the emotions are written into the story, it is sadness and joy that dominate. For most of the film, they seem to be in tension with each other, Sadness touching things she should not touch because her touches mar memories, changing them forever, and Joy irresistibly brightening her moments and days with happiness for all.
Almost always we want Sadness, an appropriately blue character shaped like a tear, to stay away from anything and everything that might be affected by her “Puddleglumness,” remembering the character from Narnia who saw every cup as half-empty, and worse. And on the other side, Joy brings joy, casting aside what should not be for what might be, for what could be.
There is drama, of course, and it all plays out in the mind and heart of the little girl, desperately trying to make a new home in a new city. But as Anger, Fear and Disgust battle for her soul, it is Sadness and Joy that finally save the day, surprisingly coming to understand that a healthy heart makes room for both “remarkable joy and remarkable sorrow.” They are not the same, and they are both true.
Everyone of us knows that. In our very different ways of living our humanness “inside out” as it were, internally wrestling with the glorious ruins that we are even as we show and tell to the wider world the invisible realities playing out deep inside, we feel stretched taut between happiness and heartache, between joy and sadness. All day long.
When I read Wright, finding something profoundly true in his words, I remember thinking that I needed reasons to believe that could make honest sense of my life. I knew true joy, I knew true sorrow— and they were not the same thing. And I knew that I was not going to be a Buddhist, requiring myself to extinguish myself, expecting that someday I would finally “see” that everything was the same, and that there was no meaning to the joy or to the sorrow. That they were illusions, and not really real, neither the joy nor the sorrow.
Instead, I entered into the richness of the incarnation in a way that I had never imagined, seeing in its theological vision a way to live in the world. That has been true, and it is still true. Day by day I am torn apart by the reality of sadness, overwhelmed by the remarkable sorrow that is ours as human beings. There are days that I despair, and cannot imagine going on. But then it is also true that the sun comes up, the flowers bloom, the lambs leap, my grandchildren jump into my arms, my wife still loves me, and I remember to remember that there is remarkable joy too. Both are woven into the pattern of my days.
The best art tells the truth about life, giving us ways to see and hear the truth about who we are, of what it means to be human. Pixar has once again, playfully as it must, told a tale that twines together the complexity of the human heart, reminding us that a good life, an honest life, a happy life, is one where sadness and joy are together written into the very meaning of life.
At least until all things are made right, at least until all the wounds are healed— and we keep on keeping on, longing for the day when all that is sad becomes untrue.
Originally posted to the Commons Blog from The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture