We’re watching “Inside Out”, a Pixar animation about Riley, a young girl, and her unsettled emotions after a family move from her beloved Minnesota home to a new life in San Francisco.
It sounds suspiciously like a busman’s holiday and I’m not at all sure I’m going to get anything from it.
Before it begins my daughter (a psychology undergraduate) and I are having a debate about the core emotions on which the story is based.
“I often ask clients if they know what the four core emotions are,” I tell her.
“Usually they can get three of them and I have this theory that the one they can’t get probably needs investigation.”
The film has begun and nobody is listening to me anymore as they rummage through a tub of “Celebrations” leftover from Christmas.
The caricatures of the emotions are well-drawn and funny although it seems worryingly stereotypical that “Joy” is tall, slim, and attractive with a pretty frock, while “Sadness” is short, chubby, and frumpy with a roll-neck sweater a size or so too big.
The narrative arc is familiar. Main characters find themselves in trouble and rise up against adversity only to have adversity beat them back down so many times that you want to scream at the TV or knock something over until, in the end, everything is sorted out satisfactorily.
But the best thing of all about the story, and enduring truth, is that nothing works without the buy-in of sadness.
Joy tries to cut her adrift but that results in a number of avoidable tragedies culminating in the disintegration of imaginary friend “Bing-Bong” apparently lost from long term memory into somewhere called “Memory Dump”, at which point my daughter pipes up witheringly,
“Nothing gets lost from long term memory unless you have a brain injury.”
I smile at having bequeathed my pedantry. I also feel relieved for Bing-Bong.
Only when sadness is part of the solution are the emotions able to work together and save the day.
Afterward, I found myself running an impromptu and inadvertent focus group with the children.
“How do you manage your disappointment and sadness at the moment?” I ask them.
They look at me as if to say, “Are we actually having this conversation now?”
“Routine is important,” they tell me.
“When I’m having a low day I allow myself to feel low,” they say.
So they manage sadness when they can, and allow it to have its head when they can’t.
I ask them if they think they will be changed by the experience of essentially staying indoors for a year but they seem less convinced about this.
They watch a lot of TV together, read a lot of books and, as the existence of “big ticket” experiences to be fascinated by has reduced, they’ve looked more closely and found joy where they can.
We eat together, although frequently these days making the subject of COVID taboo.
They have so far managed their way through all of this with the support of sadness rather than in ignorance of it.
At the end of the film, when sadness and joy come together, Riley is weeping in the arms of her parents and telling them she misses Minnesota.
“I miss Minnesota too,” he father tells her and she squeezes her eyes shut and hugs him tighter.
“Thank God,” I think, “they’re going home to Minnesota.”
But they don’t go home to Minnesota.
I suddenly notice the sadness in myself. Sadness that comes from feeling that everything would be easier if we could just go back.
But we can’t go back and, even when it feels as if we are, we’re really going forwards because that’s the only thing that works.