Emotion Isn’t the Enemy of Rationality
After July 4th, I occasionally get into “summer lite” mood. This can mean sporadic short pieces (sometimes very short, but not today) with a slightly silly take on some current topics.
I am a huge fan of Pixar movies ever since “Toy Story.” I also love most of the short films before each of the feature movies. I am still in awe of Pixar’s latest, “Inside Out”, which I finally caught on July 4th weekend. It’s a story about the emotional tumult of an 11-year old girl, handling the uprooting of her life when the family moved from Minnesota to San Francisco.
The various personified emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, constantly jostle to control the young girl’s near-term and longer-term responses and development. Their headquarters is in the little girl’s head. This is but one of the many nuances, which I probably would not have noticed were it not for Terry Gross from Fresh Air (link). Not only did the writers of the movie get the science right (link and link), their delivery of the poignancy and complexity of human emotions is simply superb.
As a social scientist, I know that life cannot be all positive all the time. Yet while watching the movie, I wanted Joy to take control, felt frustrated at Sadness’ clumsiness, was angry at Anger’s bone-headedness, wanted to kick Fear out of the picture all together, and could just about tolerate the juvenile Disgust. I allowed my emotions to go through the roller coaster ride with the movie narrative; I laughed and I cried. Afterwards, sipping coffee with my best friend, I said, “This movie is brilliant…in every respect.”
Nothing about human life, especially the mind and heart, is one-dimensional. We can’t be always happy, sad, mad, or apathetic. It is precisely the riot of all the emotions we possess that makes us who we are. We know that, yet we often insist on telling others to be positive, in responses and in moods. We want to suppress certain “unpleasant” emotions; however, all emotions can inform and guide us as to what to do. This doesn’t mean that we act on any particular emotion right away, but emotions can be our teachers.
Why is it that the only publically displayed emotional “outburst” we collectively accept in this society is joy? Every other emotional expression is frowned upon most of the time. We avert our eyes when someone cries; we ourselves would feel embarrassed if caught crying in the public. We disapprove when someone doesn’t contain his anger, and we offer platitudes at funerals. We seem to allow anger or other negative emotions to surface only in “approved” settings such as group protest.
“Inside Out” is multi-layered in its presentation; only in its subtle unfolding do we begin to accept the pairing of Joy and Sadness. But doesn’t this parallel reality? Often it is those who can subtly provide guidance are the most effective in their influence: There is a figure in the movie, the imaginary friend of the 11-year old girl’s earlier life, who when first introduced seems utterly unimportant. But [spoiler alert!] as the imaginary friend gradually faded into the abyss of the forgotten past, his final effort helped shape the trajectory of the next chapter of the girl’s life. Truly, sometimes, that which we pay little attention to, dismissing it as light and fluff, turns out to have a significant role in our life. As someone who typically eschews rituals, I had to stop and reexamine my own beliefs.
The ending of the movie is ingenious and hilarious. As the camera pans over other people’s and other creatures’ brains…it stops at a cat’s… and it’s hilarious. You just have to be there to appreciate the creativity.
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.