How do you describe Inside Out, the latest project from the animators at Pixar? It’s the story of a little girl named Riley who learns to live with the five major emotions competing for acceptance in her mind. Like everybody else, I found the movie to be hilarious and original. But I also thought it was insightful and laden with questions only theology could answer.
Did you ever wonder why people living the American Dream of freedom and affluence also suffer depression at epidemic rates? When consumers enjoy just about any privilege or purchase their hearts might desire, why do they still require 150 forms of self-medication for melancholia and despair?
The problem is those nagging emotions fighting for acceptance in our heads. In the movie they are called Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. Like everyone watching from the audience, little Riley has trouble making good decisions because each life situation results in 5 powerful emotions shouting to explain everything from contrasting points of view. According to the movie, maturity is about learning that each emotion has a valuable role on certain occasions, so all five are actually beneficial. Yeah, but they are still constantly at war.
Many Americans turn to Zoloft and Prozac and stress relief and sleeping meds because it’s so exhausting when your universe is a tiny, heart-shaped gymnasium where all your energy is burned off trying to referee and separate competing emotions. It’s like spending every day with five brats who never sleep or learn self-control: you have to play parent in every decision. There’s no rest or escape: only stress and distraction. Like wild zebras, raw emotions refuse to be trained. So what’s the healthy alternative?
The answer: just say No to them all.
For most of history across most of the planet, most nations have taught that it’s unhealthy, impolite, and even destructive to focus on yourself and your own accomplishments. But today traditional virtues like humility and deferred gratification have been utterly abandoned by a Now Generation in search of self-esteem and instant gratification. Quite suddenly we find the ancients were right: it is unhealthy and destructive to surrender to your ego and insist on always having it your way. It can be downright depressing! When you can constantly have anything you want, warring emotions make it hard to settle on exactly what that is. You’re a lion tamer in a ring with five or more untamed lions and tigers.
Paging through your Bible, it can seem annoying when Jesus Christ says things like this: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” We tend to stumble over this idea as well as similar comments like the one about hating father and mother and brother and sister in order to love him. It’s confusing for us not only because we have been brainwashed with self-esteem psychology, but because we don’t understand the ancient Hebrew way of speaking.
Old Testament men and women tended to draw stark comparisons. If you favored one person over another in a particular situation, in that moment you were practicing love for one person and rejection (“hatred”) for the other. We have no evidence that Jacob actually harbored animosity towards Leah, the woman he was tricked into marrying. But because he favored his first love Rachel, scripture describes his disfavor towards Leah as “hatred.” Despite the fact that God loves the whole world, we are told on at least two occasions that He loved Jacob and hated Esau. There is no doubt the Almighty cared for Esau and family too, but when He favored the descendants of Jacob, he showed disfavor for Esau and his tribe.
Loving Jesus more than yourself doesn’t literally demand hostility towards Self. It simply means you are able to choose on pivotal occasions to favor the call of Christ over the demands of your flesh; to favor charity and compassion over self-fulfillment and self-indulgence. Holiness is the discipline of shutting out all the voices of Self to hear the Spirit of God.
What secular cartoons cannot depict and secular Americans cannot fathom is the liberating power of learning to say No to yourself. Rather than enduring the constant assault of raging impulses, we allow faith to usher us out of the emotional war room and lock the door. Self-indulgence doesn’t satisfy for long because it merely conditions the voices to scream louder. Self-forgetfulness is the road to peace because it allows us to overlook the demands of self-fulfillment. It’s a by-product of the cross. It is the path to peace.
Take a break from your bratty emotions: say No to them all.
And lift up the Cross!