My favorite movie of 2015 was Pixar’s “Inside Out”. There is an obvious reason for this: the storyline involves the trials, growing pains, and emotional development of a 12-year-old girl. As a father, a movie about the necessity of growth, change, and maturity in the lives of children that I would rather, sentimentally, see stay the same age forever is a film that will always have my attention. This is not why Inside Out was my favorite movie that year, however.
The core theme of the movie was one of the most profound I have ever seen on a movie screen. What was the central message? That true joy is only really possible on the other side of sadness and pain. Sadness, loss, and pain as vital experiences necessary to enter true joy? C. S. Lewis would have been proud. I’ve thought about the central character’s journey from childlike happiness and contentment to disruption, pain, and loss, to a new place of rest and deep joy often over this past year. The beauty of the movie is that this journey is mirrored by the 12-year-old, Riley, and one of her interior emotions, Joy. As Riley loses the home and life she knew and loved, she begins to lose elements of her interior life that were precious to Joy (and to her parents). These interior elements are representative of her childhood: her playfulness, her friendships, even her simple relationship with her parents.
Riley, throughout the movie, is profoundly unhappy. Her unhappiness empowers Sadness, another interior emotion, and causes great disruption within the inner workings of her emotional “hierarchy”. The simple things that Joy had done in Riley’s earlier years to keep her happy were no longer working. Riley was entering into a season of complexity and pain that simple answers and sweet memories were not potent enough to answer. In order to be useful for Riley in the years to come, Joy would have to embark (against her will) on a journey to discover the depths of true joy as it works in partnership with sadness. The reality of the pain and loss meant that Riley could neither avoid her pain, nor could she medicate it through pretense and childish habits. She had to wrestle with her pain and process it honestly with her parents to come through the other side a young woman, emotionally healthy, free, and ready to engage in her new world.
The Search for Happiness
As I survey the modern music scene, I see a clear trend in pop music, which would encompass popular Christian music as well. Happiness and hope permeate modern music, and nowhere is this more evident than Christian worship. A fascinating overview of this trend can be found here. In the article, “The Sun is Always Shining in Christian Pop”, is a simple, fascinating (and brief) examination of the language of modern Christian music. In one example, the researcher mentions that the use of the word “life” in Christian songwriting outnumbered the use of the word “death” by a ratio of 8:1.
I should note that it is not my intention to demonize escapist music. “Happy” music and themes in modern songwriting are clearly reflecting a common reach across generations. One of the most viral videos ever recorded is a Facebook Live video of a mom happily celebrating her new Chewbacca mask, laughing wildly and freely. I love it! Most of the top 20 most viewed YouTube videos of all time – with views in the billions – are songs that reflect the pursuit of happiness and the enjoyment of life. Clearly we are a generation that loves to feel good: about our lives, about our future, and about our (hopefully temporary) setbacks. We love to meditate on victory, power, and hope.
This is not inherently wrong. It is, however, potentially stunting as it relates to our emotional development and our maturity.
The lessons of Inside Out can be instructive here. When we are content to settle for happiness, we may never experience true joy. Remember, for our main character, Riley, it was necessary for her to move beyond mere happiness if she was going to continue to grow and develop emotionally. The movie argues that it is necessary for our children to grapple with pain, loss, and sadness. I fear that, in the era of an explosion of social media, video games, smartphones, and beyond that there are more ways than ever to avoid wrestling with pain and settle for either feeling good or feeling nothing.
Make Something Useful
“I have found that all ugly things are made by those who strive to make something beautiful, and that all beautiful things are made by those who strive to make something useful.” – Oscar Wilde
My goal, then, is to appeal to both songwriters and consumers of modern songs to reach for something that may be far more useful than the “feel good” music that is exploding in every corner of our nation. Songwriters can reach for something richer than happiness, but harder and far more costly to obtain. I believe that the most useful art is that which reflects the full spectrum of the pain and messiness of the human experience, yet breaks through to the sweetness of true joy.
I believe that a generation that is becoming saturated with ways to escape pain needs help – from artists, songwriters, authors, and caring leaders – to learn how to take the harder road and face their pain and brokenness. This kind of art takes true courage to make. It requires that we put a measure of our own pain, brokenness, and loss on display for others to critique. This can be awkward at best, humiliating at worst. An entire generation is learning how to find an easy way out of pain in their reach for happiness, positivism, and saccharine-sweet depictions of hope. We need courageous leaders in every arena that are willing to show us a different way, towards something deeper and far more satisfying.
Jesus said that, “He who is forgiven much, loves much.” Could it be that, in an era of cheaply obtained happiness and “positive vibes”, our feelings are cheaply satiated but our love grows ever colder? I’ve found in my marriage that the deepest love breaks through my most stubborn darkness. My wife and I have endured much as we’ve wrestled through pain, failure, and brokenness and come through by grace into deep affection, respect, and joy in our friendship and love for one another. In an era of what is perhaps historic pain-avoidance, I am watching lives and marriages crumble all around me before they can taste the sweetness of true joy.
Think again on the simple truth spoken by Jesus above, from Luke 7:47. The Bible contains the full spectrum of the darkness of man’s sin, confronting the truth about human nature and our brokenness like no other written work. Yet the redemption and joy on the other side of that darkness is incomparably glorious and enjoyable. The Psalms and the Song of Solomon are some of the most beautiful songs ever written, filled with hope and true joy as they bring the listener through the darkest of valleys – valleys of death, pain, sin, and brokenness that express the truth of what every man and every woman wrestles with daily.
Artist, Songwriter, Author, I appeal to you today to consider what could be one of the most useful applications of your creativity: the discipleship of a generation through the shadow, through the valley, and through the raw, sometimes unbearable pain of life. Take us to the other side of that pain, through sadness and loss, into unspeakable joy.