Inside Out is one of the most important movies released this year. I say that not just because this movie is a return to form for Pixar. (It's right up there with Wall-E.) I say this because it teaches us some very valuable lessons about the role of emotions in our development and in how we live our lives. It also gives us a better frame of reference by which we can look at some of the awful and tragic stories that have been dominating our headlines: the horrific shooting at the Charleston church, and the revelations about the Duggar family.
I know it might seem frivolous that I'm using an animated movie to address tragic real-life events, but that's one of the purposes of art. We use art as a frame of reference to understand complicated concepts. The purpose of Aesop's Fables was to teach moral lessons. Jesus used Parables to explain complex theological and spiritual concepts. We've always used stories and art as a lens, and this time is no different. True, they may oversimplify, but it's definitely a start.
Let's first look at the tragic shooting in a black Charleston church by a young white man named Dylan Roof. In case there is any doubt, let me start of by stating, categorically, that this man's motivation was racism. I know a lot of pundits and politicians are going out of their way to avoid saying it's racism, probably because they've spent so much time denying racism even exists. But it does exist, it's pervasive, and it's the motivation for the shooting. So how can Inside Out help us understand the shooter's racism?
I should warn you that from here on out I will be discussing major plot details of Inside Out, so if you haven't seen that movie, go see it immediately and then come back. This article isn't going anywhere.
A major plot point of Inside Out is that the motions Joy and Sadness become separated from the brain's control center. That leaves the emotions Anger, Disgust, and Fear in charge. These are three, powerful, primary emotions. And when they are all you've got calling the shots, the results are toxic. Towards the end of the movie, Riley latches onto an angry idea and decides to run away, taking a bus ride funded by her mom's stolen credit card. Inside her head, that thought becomes lodged in her brain, and her emotions and actions become unfeeling and dead inside. She's resolute and nothing will sway her.
While she is saved by finally acknowledging the sadness she feels, not everyone takes that healthy step. People like the shooter, for instance, are consumed by anger, disgust, and fear. It's all they've got and those emotions are calling the shots. People who can feel joy don't gun down innocent churchgoers. People who feel sadness have enough empathy to understand why those actions are horrific. Joy and Sadness are both necessary, because they keep us in check.
Dylan Roof was angry for many years. He held other races, black people in particular, in contempt. He may have blamed them for his problems. He was also afraid of people he didn't know. Those emotions fed his racism, and that's one thing racists look for when they recruit new members. They want people without empathy, without the ability to feel happy about themselves. And when all you've got is anger, fear, and disgust, racism seems like a perfectly valid ideology because it confirms all of those emotions.
This attitude allowed him to walk into that church and spend an hour with the people he would later kill. Because he could not experience joy, because he could not empathize, his racism won the day. More than that, he was feeding his anger and disgust, reveling in his belief that he was inciting a race war.
This is why mental health is so very important. Now, maybe nothing could have been done to save this man from himself. But maybe had someone tried to get this man to open up and acknowledge his feelings, he would be able to understand what was really driving him, the anger, disgust, and fear primarily. We'll never know, but what we do know is that when someone like him is out of balance emotionally, he is often drawn to virulent and extreme racism.
That's why we need to not only acknowledge the issue of mental health, but stop trying to ignore the very real racism that still exists. Because it's taking children and turning them into monsters, and it's still killing people.
Racism, however, isn't the only thing that can come from twisted emotions. That leads me to my second point regarding the Duggar family. Much as been said about how unhealthy the Duggar family really is. And a lot of that came out years before the revelations that oldest son Josh molested five girls in the house (four sisters and a family friend).
I'm not going to talk directly about this crime and the fact that his parents covered it up. I want to talk about another disturbing detail that's not getting nearly enough attention. You've no doubt heard the phrase "The beatings will continue until morale improves." Apparently, for the Duggars, this was their mission statement.
Blogger Libby Anne was one of the many critics speaking out about the Duggars years before the revelations about Josh Duggar. She then wrote an open letter addressing people who thought her criticisms of the Duggars were unfair, and bear in mind this was in 2014, which is why her words are so chilling. Even before we knew about Josh, she was telling us why we should be concerned about the Duggars and families like them.
Simply put, in families like the Duggars, unhappiness is a punishable offense. Children in that culture (or cult, really, since it fits most of the definitions) are not allowed to be unhappy. To be unhappy, according to these twisted people, is a direct affront to God and must be punished. Severely. In other words, the beatings really do continue until morale improves. because the only acceptable emotion, ever, is joy. The other emotions are not allowed.
When happiness is enforced with threat of punishment, what does that turn happiness into?
In the movie Inside Out, the emotion is Joy is dominant. She wants her charge, Riley, to always be happy. She tries to relegate Sadness to a small corner of the control center and fights tooth and nail to keep Sadness from touching anything. And that's what causes a lot of Riley's problems. In the end, Joy isn't the hero of the movie: she's the antagonist. Her attempts to enforce happiness at all cost nearly lead to Riley's self destruction. In the end, Joy must confront the fact that she's about to become the villain.
Riley is brought back from the brink because she is finally allowed to feel sad. She is allowed to express her emotions in a safe, and healthy way. Only by letting Sadness take control is balance restored, and Sadness, working hand in hand with Joy, allow Riley to become healthy.
Tragically, people like the Duggars don't allow sadness. Their children aren't allowed a safe space for healthy emotional expression. That kind of thing can make someone broken inside. It's not healthy to do that to children. (Or adults for that matter.) Sadness is an essential emotion and it's unhealthy to discourage it.
People like the Duggars may think that eradicating sadness leads to constant joy. But the opposite is actually true. Joy is not the absence of sadness. In fact, without sadness, you don't really know what joy is. How can you truly feel joy if you don't know what it's like to be sad and unhappy? When parents punish sadness, they teach children to be fake with their emotions. Fake joy is not real joy. Pretending to be happy is not the same as true happiness.
In this toxic environment, it's clear that the Duggar parents don't take the needs of their girls very seriously. That's why the revelations about Josh, while horrific, are sadly not a total surprise. (Especially since people knew about it for years.) The Duggars were clearly more concerned about maintaining the outward appearances of being a "happy family" than in dealing with the real underlying issues. Make no mistake, this was an orchestrated coverup to protect everyone but the victims.
The Duggars, and families like them, are clearly unhealthy. They've become toxic. The scary thing is that the same thing can happen to us if we're not careful. Healthy people have a healthy balance of emotion.
This leads us to the final lesson of Inside Out, because as you can see it's not just meant to apply to these horrible occurrences. It's meant to apply to all of us. If we want to be healthy ourselves, we need to acknowledge all our emotions and not be afraid to feel some of the negative ones. We also need to understand that we can't just feed the negative ones, because too much of that can hurt us, or cause us to hurt others.
We need to understand that children need to be free and safe to deal with their emotions, especially as they are growing up. They need to understand that they don't have to be happy all the time, that it's all right to be sad or afraid or upset. The way to work through those emotions is not to suppress them nor pretend like they don't exist, but acknowledge them and worth through. That's what leads to emotional health and maturity.
Not only do we need to give them room to feel, we should also model healthy emotions as well. Which means, among other things, that it's all right if you find yourself crying while Bing Bong takes one last trip on his rocket, You're just being healthy, which is why you shouldn't hide that fact from your kids.