Sadness Is My Favorite
“Sadness touch my memories, Mama.”
My two-year-old repeats this sentence like it’s his mantra. We’ve been watching Inside Out on heavy rotation at our house. He and his seven-year-old sister find the film about feelings enchanting. They quote lines. They pick favorite characters. They beg to watch it one more time. I tend to let them; I have a soft spot for Pixar films in general and Inside Out in particular. How often do children’s films directly address emotions and feelings in complex and meaningful ways? Not often enough.
The film centers on eleven-year-old Riley, as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, the move, a new school and house, and a more demanding job for her dad causes emotional upheaval for Riley. California is different from the familiar Minnesota; even the pizza is different. How will she process and adapt to all these transitions? We get a glimpse into Riley’s mind run by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Joy is the main emotion that drives the machinery of Riley’s mind. She works the control panel and coaxes the other emotions into agreeing with her. Joy is a benevolent dictator. Riley’s core memories glow a warm yellow, demonstrating that Joy is Riley’s dominant emotion. As the film progresses, Riley’s emotional life gets more complicated. Riley is growing up, transitioning from child to tween. Her emotions are forced to grow right along with her.
Joy has to learn that not all experiences are happy. This is a heavy lesson to learn.
The first time I watched Inside Out, I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. Tears streaked my face. My nose was runny. My daughter aptly noted, “This is a sad movie,” while wiping tears off her own cheeks. Inside Out is a movie about growing up and emotions. The shots of Riley as a baby, toddler, kid, and then teen are too similar to the pictures that I have of my kids appearing on walls and end-tables inside my house. When Riley throws a tantrum at dinner, I remember the battles over food that happened yesterday. Our toddler regularly refuses new foods; tantrums are a fact of life. Inside Out works over the parents in its audience by documenting the fleeting nature of childhood. Pixar lets us know that childhood passes by quickly, which is both threat and promise.
Despite my sobbing, Inside Out’s journey of emotions draws me in. We even get glimpses into the minds of other people around Riley. We learn that Dad’s dominant emotion is anger, Mom’s is sadness. Cats’ minds are exactly as random as we expect them to be. Some people are more joyful, angry, sad, fearful, or disgusted than others, which colors how they engage the world. One emotion appears to drive us more than others. It is the space our minds return to. Our resting affect.
My daughter identifies with Joy. Of course, she would. She is Joy in first-grade form. She’s a happy-go-lucky kid that finds beauty, fun, and goodness in everything. She’s overwhelmingly cheerful and excited. Are you excited too?! You must be! She is! Life has all of the possibilities, which are patiently waiting for us to notice. My oldest will meet them head-on with ferocity and kindness. I envy her capacity for joy. I wish the world looked rosy and full of potential to me too. I try to imagine what the world looks like to her, and I fail each time. When I stand next to her, I can almost feel the warm glow that her joy radiates.
I find myself identifying with Sadness. No surprises here either. I understand Sadness: her mopiness, her inability to go away, the way she lurks in the background, and her urge to touch the memories that are joyful, because maybe then joy will touch you back. I don’t find myself laying curled up on the floor (rather a couch or a bed), but damn, I understand the appeal. Joy doesn’t appreciate Sadness. No one really seems to.
For many, sadness is commonly understood as a sign that something is wrong. Sadness must be fixed. It is an emotion that needs to be corralled, contained, overlooked, or ignored. People ask relentlessly, “Are you happy?” as if this is the only way to ascertain how you are. How happy you are signals the correctness of your life choices, your success, and whether you are worth engaging. Happiness is what American culture, marketing, and self-help tells us to pursue. Joy is preferred. Anger is unacceptable. Sadness appears pathological.
Too bad for me that sadness is my habit of being, my habitual emotion.
For a very long time, I imagined that my propensity for sadness meant that something was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just be happy? Why couldn’t I aspire to be carefree? Why did sadness appear perpetual, and happiness seem mercurial and fickle? Why was I broody and angsty? I covered all that sadness up with a cheerful facade. I would fake happiness until it became my habit. Happiness appeared even more elusive as I mimicked it daily.
What I failed to recognize was that the pursuit of something called happiness made me miserable. Trying to be constantly happy did not make me happy. Faking it was not a solution. This is not say that I was unhappy, but happiness flittered in and out of my life. I was generally content with my life, even in my sorrow. It was the emphasis on unrelenting happiness that caused my discomfort and unease. When you’re only culturally sanctioned emotion is happiness, the rich complexity of our emotional lives becomes a problem to be fixed. We are never only happy, sad, fearful, disgusted, or angry. We experience all of these to differing degrees, and often simultaneously. Our emotions are contradictory, messy, and conflicting. This is what makes us human.
Maybe happiness should not be an essential goal. Happiness doesn’t equal a life well-lived. A quick look at the world around us suggests that we have plenty of reasons to be sad, angry, disgusted, and fearful. Sadness feels more apt than joy. Inside Out helps us see that.
Over breakfast, my daughter asked, “Who’s your favorite character in Inside Out?”
Gulping my coffee, I replied, “Sadness.”
“Because I like her.”
“Why do you like her?
“Because she listens, she mopes, and she tries to make Bing Bong feel better. Sadness also saves the day.”
“She does, doesn’t she?”
As I tug his shoes later in our rush to get to preschool and school, my son repeats, “Sadness touch my memories.” He grins with such abundant joy that I can’t help but grin back.
“She does,” I say.
I give him a quick hug.
“She touches mine too,” I whisper. And that’s okay.
Kelly J. Baker writes about the apocalypse, zombies, mental illness, trauma, and higher education. She's the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Higher Education, and Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, forthcoming Fall 2020. She's also the editor of Women in Higher Education, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, and Disability Acts. You can find her hanging around on Twitter @kelly_j_baker, tweeting about coffee, parenting, writing, and other shenanigans.