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What Pixar’s Inside Out teaches us about lament

As Inside Out is released on DVD this week, Tim Bechervaise looks at what the film can teach us about emotion

Pixar have a wonderful knack for creating films that promise laughter and tears, for child and adult alike. Inside Out is no different. In fact, with its fascinating insight into the human mind, for the viewer the lasting impact of the story - much like one of Scripture's more overlooked books - may just be more tears than laughter.

Inside Out follows the mind of Riley, an 11-year-old girl facing the turmoil of moving from her happy life in Minnesota to San Francisco. In Riley's mind are five characters - Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear - each of whom, according to the emotion they personify, seek to take control of Riley's mind at appropriate moments.

Leader of the pack is Joy, who seeks to ensure Riley's life is a happy one. With the upheaval of moving, Joy looks to suppress any hint of sorrow and instead put in Riley's mind a positive spin on the move. Riley's mother also urges her daughter to remain optimistic. She is, after all, their 'happy girl'. 

Unsurprisingly, in Riley's mind Sadness is viewed with little purpose. 'This is the circle of sadness,' Joy tells Sadness, drawing a small chalk circle around the forlorn character. 'Your job is to make sure sadness stays inside of it!'

Things don't go to plan, with the story going on to show the importance of giving Sadness space for expression. It is here Inside Out echoes a key message from one of the Old Testament's poetic books.

Lamentations is the graphic and anguished account of Jerusalem's destruction in 587BC, with the author (likely Jeremiah) weeping over the desolation of the land (2:11), the silence of surrounding nations (4:17) and the absence of God (5:20). 'My eyes fail from weeping,' comes the lament. 'I am in torment within, my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed, because children and infants faint in the streets of the city' (2:11).

I am conscious of the disparity between the real and immense suffering presented in Lamentations and the fictional story of an animation movie. That said, sorrow and suffering comes in varying degrees and from multiple causes, and though one person's suffering may seem futile compared to another's, the pain is equally real and it matters to God.

In this respect, amongst its many other lessons, Lamentations is invaluable, as it encourages us to give expression to our own sorrows and the questions that often follow: Where are you, God? Why is this happening?

Or in the case of Riley, it lets Sadness take her place.

Interestingly, throughout Lamentations, God does not speak directly. Though present and referenced, there is no direct word from God. Kathleen O'Connor, in her book Lamentations and the Tears of the World, reflects, 'Lamentations...prevents us sliding prematurely over suffering towards happy endings. It gives the book daring power because it honours human speech.'

And as we speak, our cries find a home in heaven. God is an intent listener and the receiver of our tears. As Psalm 56:8 says 'Record my lament; list my tears on your scroll - are they not in your record?'

For whatever reason, however, like Riley we can feel compelled to keep the sadness that resides and the questions that linger within a small chalk circle: fear of what people may say or think, of who we may let down, the lack of faith it could show, the seeming folly of our pain compared to others, the question of whether God even cares.

Whatever it is, these laments - along with the likes of Moses, David, Job, Habakkuk and Jesus - give us license to be, before God and each other, equally honest with our own pain and questions.

Through the grief and questions, the author could still say, 'Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness' (2:22-23). Often it is only by letting the tears fall that we, too, can begin to utter again these same words.

Something similar happened with Riley. Joy eventually let Sadness take her place, leading to an expression of sorrow which helped rebuild the fractured relationship with her parents and provide a foundation for her to establish herself in San Francisco. Joy's oversight now took on a more measured form. 

Whilst our transformation may look different, Riley's story is a reminder that being real with God and each other gives further opportunity for Joy to take her rightful place. As Ecclesiastes 3:4 puts it, there is 'a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance'. When your time comes for weeping or laughter, mourning or dancing, let it flow. Don't stay within the circle.

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