A Bittersweet Philosophy on Life; or, How a Kids’ Movie Said What I’ve Never Been Able to Explain

“As weird as it may sounds, I really only cry at happy parts of a movie.”

In so few, intentionally self-critical words, he’d captured so much of what I believe about the human experience. We stood in a parking garage under dim florescent, sharing our musings on the movie we’d just seen, me for the second time and him for the first.

“I cried three times the first time I saw it,” I told him.

And I had—I cried at the gorgeous whimsy that imbued with validation every feeling I’ve had about feelings. If you haven’t already seen Inside Out, Pixar’s latest stroke of genius, run, don’t walk, to your nearest theater. Also stop reading, because ahead lie spoilers.

Inside Out

I’ll admit I had my doubts about a movie that took place almost entirely in an 11-year-old girl’s mind. As Riley struggles with a move from her Minnesota hometown to San Francisco, her personified feelings (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust) struggle to regain emotional balance, to keep Riley happy. Joy, voiced by the ineffable Amy Poehler, runs the show inside Riley’s mind, urging Sadness, thought to be her antithesis, to stop meddling. And naturally the two get stuck together on a whirlwind journey through a beautifully imagined landscape of the mind, on their way back to headquarters. Joy seems the natural protagonist of the story—after all, don’t we all want to be happy? Without her in the driver’s seat, Riley shuts down emotionally. It’s something akin to an adjustment disorder with a depressed mood. Depression, after all, is a lack of emotion, not simply sadness.

And this is where Disney surprised us all, I think. Despite the chronic pressure, both internal and external, for Riley to simply be happy, it’s Sadness that brings her comfort. It’s Sadness who colors Riley’s core memories from her hometown and allows her to express herself, drawing the support she so desperately needs from her family. By the end, a happy, healthy Riley is one whose experiences are a mix of all sorts of emotions, a balance between the so-called positive and negative.

This is why I sobbed into my popcorn. Then went home and sobbed some more.

I’ve only shared my philosophy on life with one person, silenced by a fear of judgement. I described it in that one conversation as a yin and yang of happiness and sadness, a balance of two perfectly complementary feelings. At any given time in the course of my day, I am some amount of happy and some amount of sad. My greatest moments are also heartbreaking and fleeting, while my darkest often leave me in awe of the sheer exhilaration of being alive. Some of my happiest accomplishments have also meant the end of some well-loved part of my life. Some of my greatest losses have opened doors of understanding and human connection that I never expected. In this ebb and flow, I’ve found a balance of joy and sadness my greatest ally. It’s a beautifully bittersweet way to experience life. Here’s the thing though—according to mainstream society, that really makes me sound a little “crazy.” Even the single time I opened up to share this bittersweet philosophy, I felt misunderstood. Laying underneath a down comforter and the cover of night yet bare in my vulnerability, I was met with yet another person who focused simply on the pursuit of happiness.

And then this movie came along. And it perfectly captures the daily micro-aggressions we all face that shame us for feeling anything other than positive. You don’t have to be a child like Riley, who faces comments from her mother like, “Where’s our happy girl?” In fact, I’d say it’s worse as an adult, particularly in the workplace. From women walking down the street and being told to smile to business men who grow up thinking success is best gotten with a stone-cold exterior, these are the sorts of micro-aggressions that leave us leading emotionally unbalanced lives. Yes, there is a strong movement in some professional fields that bucks the trend: Anything rooted in psychology, sociology, and counseling teaches you to validate all emotions, because it really is always okay to feel the way you feel. Yet it’s not enough to discount the constant barrage of stuff, people, things telling us to just fucking be happy.

Inside Out turns a critical lens on this chronic emotional repression in Western culture, and it does so in the most approachable way. To think, a kids’ movie said what I haven’t been able to explain for years. And standing in that dim parking lot, my emotions reeling, I still bit my tongue.

“I was surprised you didn’t cry!” I said to him instead.

“Well, I wasn’t going to cry in front of you,” he responded.

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