Outside In: Catholic Faith and the Emotional Life

I went to see the New Pixar movie, Inside Out.   The film takes us inside the mind of a young girl, Riley, where we literally see her emotions, depicted as cartoon personifications.  “Joy” is a bouncy, bubbly, vibrant young woman. “Sadness” is a pudgy, mopey little blue girl.  We also meet characters named “Fear,” “Anger,” and “Disgust.” They live and interact in a vast landscape – deep canyons of forgetfulness, mountains of memory, factories of imagination, and so forth. The emotions operate the command and control center of the brain and help Riley make decisions.  They also carry out the daily task of logging memories into long term.

Using these cartoon figures, the film’s writers attempt to capture the complexity of human psychology. Inside the young girl’s brain, we see “islands of personality” constructed around stable long-term memories. The “train of thought” (depicted, literally, as a train) travels seemingly at random throughout the mind, but stops frequently at imagination. The emotions must tread warily when they pass through “abstract reasoning,” since they risk becoming abstracted into two dimensions. The depths of the subconscious (depicted as a cave at the bottom of a staircase) contain long-dormant fears.

Watching the film prompted me to reflect on the Catholic teaching on the emotional life and how it differs from Pixar’s pop-culture psychology.  The film’s crisis emerges because the character “Joy” attempts to stifle “Sadness,” keeping her away from the control center of the brain. The attempt backfires, and Sadness overwhelms Riley’s emotional life. Riley becomes disconnected from the people around her.  Both Joy and Sadness then go on a journey through Riley’s mind, trying to piece together her emotional stability and restore her relationships.

The movie offers a metaphor about the well-balanced emotional life.  When Riley loses touch with “Joy,” Anger, Fear, and Disgust take over her brain. When her emotional crisis erupts, “The Train of Thought” literally breaks down.  Joy can’t think her way back, but has to depend on imagination to return to the control center. The climax of the film comes when the emotions realize that they all need to work together in harmony. Even Sadness has a role to play in a healthy emotional life.

Viewing the film through Catholic tradition, I found many things to appreciate. Like the film writers, our faith recognizes the complexity of human psychology and strives for a well-balanced emotional life.  St. Thomas, in particular, discusses the proper ordering of the passions and the positive role that each of them plays in a happy life. He even recognizes a positive role for sorrow. Catholic spiritual writers also deal with the wandering “train of thought,” and warn against over reliance on discursive or abstract thinking.

But a Catholic analysis would find things to criticize in Pixar’s pop psychology. To begin with, Riley’s emotions are in charge of her decision making.  They literally run the show.  To make matters worse, the power of abstraction, critical to our rationality, is depicted largely as an impediment to healthy emotions.  The film’s prescription for a sound psychology is simply to give adequate attention to each emotion.  In this way, positive relationships with others can be restored.

 Catholic thought gives a different analysis of emotional disorder and offers a different solution. Our primary problem is not failure to give vent to emotion. Rather, our passions are disordered because they do not accord with the good known by reason. And the solution to our problem doesn’t begin from the Inside Out, but rather, from the Outside In. The solution comes in that touch of divine love we call grace.  God’s love heals our emotions, enlightens our intellect, and draws us towards the good.

Catholic tradition also aims at an experience of happiness that is far richer than emotional balance.  As an intellectual being, man desires to know. As a person, man desires to love.  In this life, intellect, comprehension, human freedom, and love of persons all play a role in the good life.  In the next life, we look forward to an experience of the ultimate good (God) in an intuitive vision that transcends all human intellectual and emotional experience.

Inside Out was a delightful movie.  It was creative, visually beautiful, and thought provoking. But its vision of the interior life, though complex, was lacking in spiritual vitality.  It was typical of our culture, which sadly diminishes the role of reason and of the objective good in its picture of the good life.  In moral philosophy, this diminished view of persons leads to emotivism, or the view that morality is only a matter of emotional attitudes.  Against this, we uphold the rich and comprehensive Catholic vision of the good life. We are complex emotional creatures, but we are also rational beings with a spiritual nature. Our ultimate good, including our emotional balance, comes through loving union with the ultimate Good who is God.

1 thought on “Outside In: Catholic Faith and the Emotional Life

  1. Francis Haight - November 6, 2015

    Thanks, Dr. Anders, for this review of the film. I think it would bore me to tears because that’s what most things pop do to me and your review goes a long way to explaining why. My own summary would go something like this: the metaphorical heart must be the seat of the will, not of emotion. The latter resides in the gut and must not be allowed to usurp the will from its throne; we have a responsibility not to surrender our free will to how we feel. Our rapidly disintegrating culture can be seen as an example of what happens when we forget this.

    “Catholic spiritual writers also…warn against over reliance on discursive or abstract thinking.” I immediately thought of G. K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” when I read this!

    Anyway, we look forward to more of your great writing, Dr. Anders.

    Frank Haight

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