Everybody wants to be happy. No one wants to be sad. The pursuit of happiness can be found everywhere, from the American Dream to the Declaration of Independence. Our emotions may be complicated, but there seems to be a common consensus that you can’t go wrong with being happy.
Disney’s animated film Inside Out has an interesting take on the life of emotions by personifying five feelings — joy, sadness, disgust, fear, and anger — inside the mind of a young girl named Riley. The film portrays each emotion fighting for control over how Riley perceives the world and which emotion colors her memories. The strongest, most central relationship in the story is between Joy and Sadness. Joy is optimistic, hopeful, cheerful, commanding, and a little too Type-A. She wants all of Riley’s life to be experienced and remembered as entirely happy. She has an uncompromising drive to crowd out the other emotions that might taint Riley’s life. At first, Joy’s instinct to be dominant seems fair enough — after all, wouldn’t we all rather be joyful than depressed, fearful, or angry?
In the film, Sadness is the polar opposite of Joy. She’s consistently negative, depressed, sluggish, and disinterested in life. She often tries to leave her mark on Riley’s memories before they get moved to long-term memory, and Joy is always there to prevent it. As the film progresses, Joy’s initially intuitive dominance over Sadness starts to seem dysfunctional, and Joy has to fight harder to repress Sadness. However, when Riley makes the rash decision to run away from home after a difficult move to San Francisco, Sadness surprisingly plays a central role in convincing Riley to return to her parents. In the climactic reunion, Joy is dumbfounded to find that she’s not needed here — the only emotion that can best and most beautifully encapsulate this moment of reunion is Sadness. All of Riley’s special memories with her family flooded her mind, and while her homecoming contained elements of happiness and security, it was ultimately driven by a longing homesickness.
It might be true that everybody wants to be happy, but often we neglect the fact that sometimes being sad is okay. While joy is a key component of Christianity, it can easily become a veneer for underlying emotional frustration, and herein lies the emotional tension of the Christian life. The beautiful story of the Gospel brings incredible hope to this broken world, and we should all respond to this good news with rejoicing and gladness. At the same time, we still live in a deeply broken world where death and violence reign supreme. Sometimes, all we can do is cry.
And sometimes, that’s completely okay. I believe it’s important that we learn to overcome the socially and self-perpetuated expectation of perpetual happiness and accept sorrow and grief as legitimate elements of the Christian life. Jesus understood this well: when his close friend Lazarus suddenly died, Jesus’s first response was to weep (Jn 11:35). Even though he knew he had the power to resurrect Lazarus from the dead, Jesus was first overwhelmed with sadness and grief for his loss.
This may seem counterintuitive, but Christ’s hope for a future of healing for Lazarus was still compatible with his initial grief and sorrow. Christians hope for the future of when God will restore this broken world, but, in the meantime, they grieve for the death and injustice around us. Christ illustrates this principle through the spiritual discipline of fasting. When asked why the Pharisees fast while he and his disciples do not, he replied, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast” (Mk 2:19-20). Jesus is teaching that the purpose of fasting is a sort of mourning or yearning for his return as the bridegroom. While he is still on this earth, that mourning isn’t necessary because he is with them. When he leaves, fasting takes on meaning. Since Christ has left us, we should feel a sense of loss while awaiting his return.
While Christians should respond with joy to the good news of the Gospel, they should also respond with sadness to the world’s broken state. Subduing our sadness in the face of terrible injustice would be inauthentic and harmful.
If we shouldn’t suppress our sadness, how should we then express it? The Book of Psalms paints a complete picture of the emotional life of a Christian, and helps us frame our grief and sadness so it points us back to God. The Psalms contain a wide variety of emotional expression; for every song laced with praise and rejoicing, there is a lyric seeped in sorrow and despair.
The Christian life itself is no different. For every season of blessing, there is a season of hardship; for every set of green pastures and still waters, there is a valley of the shadow of death. The authenticity of psalms of lament and sorrow demonstrate that while the Christian life involves plenty of joy, it also leaves room for doubt and discouragement. God welcomes our cries of frustration and sadness, and offers His comfort.
Although many Psalms dive into the emotional world of despair, doubt, and anger, the Psalmist consistently ends each lamentation with encouraging truths like “God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps 73:26). These endings do not discount the legitimacy of heavy emotions, but give our burdened hearts eternal perspective. A given moment of life might be very painful, and the Psalms model crying out to God and unloading our emotions on Him. But, more importantly, the Psalms offer a path to recovery. Their unique songs of expression (rather than sermons of teaching) train our hearts to reorient us back to God during hardship.
Emotions are complicated. God gives us an authentic collection of human expressions that meets us in our messiness and points us towards the hope of a restored future. It’s a beautiful picture of the Gospel: Jesus Christ reaches down into the complicated mess of the human condition, suffers with us in our broken world, and saves us from ourselves by leading us back to God.
By the end of Inside Out, Joy learns that complete dominance over Riley’s emotional life is not only unrealistic, but it is also unhealthy. Sometimes, the right way to respond to life is with Sadness. Jesus also understood that sometimes the best one can do is weep. He even instructs his followers to incorporate grief into their spiritual lives as they await his return.
While Inside Out teaches us not to suppress our undesirable emotions, the Psalms and the story of Christ teach this on a much deeper, more human level. They tell the beautiful story of how God steps into our entangling web of emotions, dwells with us in our brokenness, and brings us back to Himself. The Psalms and the Gospel give us something better than simple happiness: hope.
Brandon Wright ’18 is a Chemistry concentrator in Adams House.