What do Pixar’s film Inside Out and Woody Allen’s classic Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) have in common? Surprisingly, quite a lot. Inside Out tells the story of a little girl named Riley from the perspective of her anthropomorphised emotions (fear, joy, anger, sadness). These emotions learn to work together to effectively commandeer Riley’s inner life from inside the cockpit of her brain. In Woody Allen’s film, similar inner-life characters work together to launch an army of sperm during a sexual encounter. (The film is bawdy but not graphic, taking place entirely within the innards of the protagonist.) Apart from divergent goals of these two plots, both the Pixar and Woody Allen films are about the teamwork and loyalty our inner-lives display on our behalf. Every character is committed to the wellbeing of the protagonist, even to the death. One spermatozoa says to another spermatozoa, “Don’t forget the pledge you signed: to fertilise an egg or die trying!” I found it touching to imagine just how committed millions of my own cells are to the ongoing wellbeing of my own body and spirit.
In both films, conflicts arise between inner-life characters whose purposes are at odds with one another. In Inside Out, a character named Sadness is continuously being banished from the mental cockpit by the other emotions who think she is detracting from Riley’s wellbeing. In Woody Allen’s film, a character named Conscience, dressed in a priest’s collar, storms into the mental cockpit trying to stop the sexual encounter shouting loudly “Don’t you think you should be ashamed of yourselves? Sex between unmarried people?! Blasphemy!” The other members of the cockpit quickly pin him down and send him off to solitary confinement before he can further sabotage the proceedings. The rest of the characters in the cockpit can’t understand why Conscience would try to stop them from going forward. For each of them, the measure of their creation is to help their master “multiply and replenish the earth,” and any opportunity to do this is a top priority.
A New Way to Think of Free Will
These films give me a new way to think about the process of decision making. I’ve blogged before about what Hermann Hesse calls “the fiction of the ego,” the enduring illusion that we are a mastermind fully in control of our destiny. We imagine ourselves as an ego-king, pondering the various decisions, weighing them in the balance, steering the ship of our life from our mental helm. These films present a more complicated picture. Rather than an all-powerful ego-king, decisions in these films are made through the in-fighting of many different characters. In Inside Out, Anger fights with Joy, Joy fights with Sadness, Sadness unwittingly sabotages consensus decisions, and ultimately, the more powerful voices win out.
It reminds me of the old Indian tale of the two wolves inside of us, one good and one bad. How do we know which wolf will win? “The one you feed.” In this tale, there is no ego saying, “today I’ll follow the bad wolf, tomorrow I’ll follow the good wolf.” Whether we follow the good or the bad wolf depends entirely on the daily fight between the two wolves. Control over our destiny is a question of strategy, not decision making: nurturing the good wolf and starving the bad wolf over the long term. It’s why in the self-help industry, the word “life-hacking” is replacing the word “self-discipline.”
The Natural Man
My interpretation of the scripture “the natural man is an enemy to God” has always been that God created the natural man within us, and then set it at war against Himself, thus setting up within us an “opposition in all things.” Our nature is not evil. But it is set up to have inner contradictions. If there is “evil” in our nature, it resides in the imbalance between the different aspects of our identity, not in any one particular aspect of our identity. In Woody Allen’s movie, the Sperm Captain is not evil. He is simply fulfilling the measure of his creation. If there is evil, it exists in the fact that the Conscience is not strong enough to balance out the Sperm Captain.
When we anthropomorphise natural parts of our identity as “temptations of Satan,” it does our body a disservice, as well as the Creator who so carefully designed it. There is a popular LDS book called Visions of Glory about the improbable near-death adventures of John Pontius. During his vision, he visits a young man looking at pornography at his computer, and sees hordes of evil spirits all crowding around him, egging him on. This sort of conceptualisation, whether it was a real vision or not, is a sad oversimplification. The billions of individual cells in our body can’t distinguish between pornography and real sex, and God ordained that they all work together all the same to fill the measure of creation, whether it’s looking at porn or looking at a real woman. The evil resides, not in the sexual act or desire to act, which come from God, but in the imbalances which create the opportunity to look at pornography to begin with, and the inability of the conscience to mitigate those imbalances.
Appreciating Our Bodies
Both films portray the human body as a committed team. In Woody Allen’s film, it felt simultaneously perverse and inspirational to see the thousands of individual inner-life drones coming together to fight in this common cause. After the successful tryst, the whole team breaks out bottles of champaign, toasting what had been a glorious, committed effort, a bit like sports dramas where team members come together against all odds to win a championship game. Do these inner drones care whether it was married or unmarried sex? Whether it was masturbation or a successful fertilisation? Of course not. They are acting according to design, and I think that individually, like all of God’s creations, they are meant to fulfil the measure of their creation and “have joy therein.”
This gives us a new way to think about our body’s little success and failures. Every second of every day, millions of individual cells work as hard as they can for us, steeling themselves heroically for each engagement, whether it is winning an olympic event, or having unmarried sex. Whenever you feel alone, remember that there are trillions of little organisms that are on your side, fighting for your survival, cheering you on. They don’t care if you make a mistake. They hold nothing against you and they forgive you for everything and they will fight for you until their dying breath.
In her podcast On Being, Krista Tippet gave a beautiful interview with Matthew Sanford, a paraplegic yoga instructor and self-help guru. He had this to say about his body and its valiant attempt to recover from the automobile accident that almost killed him at age 13, and his impatience over his body’s inability to heal.
My body didn’t ask to get hammered and break, and to have its spine shredded, and many bones broken. And it went, “OK, let’s regroup. Let’s go.” And only a little part of my body didn’t heal. Only — you know, an inch or two of my spinal cord was not able to regenerate. It went to work, right, and that’s what it’ll do. It might get confused. It might not know how to grow the right cells, but I’m telling you, it’s moving toward living for as long as it possibly can.
In an age of mass marketing with airbrushed ideals constantly on display, its easy to get down about our bodies. But when we hate our body, we are hating a vast and miraculous world of inner-beings who are committed to fight for us. Even when they mess up, for example, by storing more cellulite on our thighs than we actually need in the modern world, we should remember how deeply this vast throng of cellulite loves and lives for us.
- What did you think of the film Inside Out, and the idea that all our emotions, including negative ones are essential dimensions of our being?
- Do you agree that free will is more a question of long-term strategy than short-term self-discipline, “the wolf you feed”?
- Do you agree that “opposition in all things” doesn’t necessarily mean opposition between good and evil?
- Do you agree that God is to blame for designing our body and spirit to be odds? Or do unwanted physical desires come from the temptations of Satan?
- Do you struggle to love your body in an age of airbrushed media ideals? Could it help to think of the body as a loyal team of individuals all committed to your wellbeing, even when they don’t always know how to get it right?
There is a popular LDS book called Visions of Glory about the improbable near-death adventures of John Pontius. During his vision, he visits a young man looking at pornography at his computer, and sees hordes of evil spirits all crowding around him, egging him on.
The author has been reading all of that evangelical pap about “spiritual warfare,” Frank Peretti and the like. Heaven help us. Can we please get over our schoolgirl crush on the American evangelical movement?
The billions of individual cells in our body can’t distinguish between pornography and real sex . . . whether it’s looking at porn or looking at a real woman.
Shame on you; how blithely sexist and heteronormative of you. 😉
Seriously, folks, Nate does us all a great service here (and though I chuckle to say it, and it might not have been his intent, so did Woody Allen). “Agency” and “choice” and “temptation” and good vs. evil are not as simple as we’d like to believe.
Mostly we’d like to believe that they’re simple because it’s easier to condemn sinners that way, of course, but nonetheless, some days we feed one wolf, some days the other, some days both. Some days we lie awake at night and watch them wrestle, and some days we run with one leash in each hand.
I don’t know that Nate’s bullet-point dichotomies make perfect sense to me either – “God is to blame” vs. “Satan’s temptations”? God certainly designed me this way, and Satan certainly encourages me to focus on my weaknesses. Maybe both? And when it comes to the wolves, I think the short-term choices I make eventually become a long-term strategy, unless I focus on short-term choices that support my long-term strategy; so once again, both.
However, anything we can read or do to keep us from overly simplistic thinking about the most fundamental principle of the Gospel, that of agency, is a useful exercise. Thanks, Nate.
I love the film Inside Out and I often use it for teaching kids about their feelings. But hopefully adults are reaching way beyond this child model toward more autonomy. Unfortunately since autonomy is thinking and doing more for yourself it isn’t supported by the church rather it is highly discouraged! Obey! Follow your leaders, be someone better than you really are, etc, etc
How does one grow toward autonomy? It begins with awakening certainly you now know Santa Clause doesn’t really exist! But how old were you when you finally confronted some of the fairy tales on your LDS shelf and be honest now, how many still remain? Leaving them on the shelf is denial but this is encouraged by the church! Denial is simply lying to yourself. The unresolved conflict is pushed towards or into your subconscious where it nags at you but at a low enough level that you can (mostly) ignore it. But that nagging adds to the noise of your system making it harder for you to be sensitive in your personal intuition, inspiration and revelation. Beyond this beginning level of awakening meditation can be used to uncover some of our subconscious allowing us to (somewhat) clean house making intuition, inspiration and revelation much more effective. A sell what you have, give to the poor discipleship can enhance our understanding of ourself and our relationship to God even further perhaps even leading to a changed heart. Somewhere along the way an experience know as Ego Death or The Dark nigh of the Soul can serve to acquaint us with the startling fact the we aren’t our ego and our ego isn’t us. All of these experiences make us more autonomous and authentic as individuals while (oddly?) simultaneously making us more one with God.
I loved Inside Out. I found the inner life of the emotions to be very true. Not sure about how this changes how I understand the LDS concept of agency. . . But I do have another “warring inner creatures” metaphor for you: Wait, but Why?’s “Why Procrastinators Procrastinate.” In Tim Urban’s famous website, he describes how we have a Rational Decision Maker at the wheel of our brain, but the Instant Gratification Monkey manages to take over the wheel and lead us into the Dark Playground where we in a downward spiral of youtube videos. Only the Panic Monster can banish the Instant Gratification Monkey and put the Rational Decision Maker back at the wheel. Tim Urban’s TED talk is pretty funny, too. I highly recommend it! I’ve shared it with my kids, and it has helped us all immensely to recognize when we’re in the dark playground and to tame the little instant gratification monkey inside our heads. I find it helpful to realize that the instant gratification monkey isn’t necessarily bad (just as sadness isn’t bad in Inside Out). He’s just a monkey who likes to watch youtube videos. Part of being a grownup is learning how to tame the monkey–not kick him out, but tame him.
New Iconoclast, it’s great to have you back commenting! I like your extension of the wolf metaphor. I agree that I’ve oversimplified the situation in my own way, and that the realities of the interaction between our own free will and the forces within us are irredeemably complex.
Howard, by “autonomy” do you mean the kind of awareness we get that we are living “in the matrix” as they say, and that very little of our perceptions and understandings correspond to eternal spiritual truths? I could agree with that.
Linda, thanks for bringing up Instant Gratification Monkey. I’d forgotten about that. It’s a brilliant conceptualisation of the inner life, and if I’d remembered it, I’d have replaced it with the “wolf you feed” metaphor, because I think it’s a lot more accurate and doesn’t cloud our understanding with moral judgements. Excellent comment!
Well autonomy means self-governing, freedom from external control or influence but I’m also using it to indicate increasing freedom from our own internal subconscious control. This comes about via the type of awareness you mention and also by increased internal self awareness.
The mighty change of heart occurs when one’s understanding of God’s eye and Christ’s’ mind reaches a tipping point of realization that it is in our (and everyone’s) self-interest to do what it takes (not I’m not referring to the LDS checklist here) to commune with and merge with God. This step is an autonomous decision (not to obey) rather to willingly commune and merge with God.
I loved the film. I would like to add another emotion ‘Despair’. Maybe Despair is combination of fear and sadness? I know in my own life that Despair has played a big role in recent years. After a simple fall down my house stairs left me disabled, stripped me of my job, friends, financial security, health and my home I feel I have reasons to despair and Joy deserted me altogether. Before my fall I working as a registered nurse at a busy cardiology unit in an inner city hospital, and three before my fall I had successfully helped to save a man’s life in a lift, no less.
We are a combination of all our emotions. Are they essential? Yes, is the easy answer. Without fear and sadness, we wouldn’t understand joy. I don’t think we have control of our emotions all of the time, but we can put an outer persona of an emotion, we can appear to be happy, whilst inside we are sad for instance.
Does feeding one wolf over the other make a difference? Not as much as we would like to think it does.
Children are not innately bad. The only thing they know when they are born is how to survive. They are blank slates and we teach them everything including about emotions. We teach them what is good and what is bad. We teach them about Joy and Sadness and Fear. Without such teaching we would not understand emotions such as joy or sadness. In life we learn what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. Sex is certainly in the ‘Not’ Acceptable pile of things we learn about, it is one of the last things we seem to teach our children about and if a child learns about it when they are too young, not sure what that means, then it is seen as wrong. Society decides when and how it is acceptable to teach a child about sex. However, sex, is another way for us to survive. To create a child means that we survive through them, our survival is all that matters.
When prayerfully deciding about returning to work after having my children, God told me in a blessing that yes I should do so, but that I would retire at age 48. After my accident I did have to retire, I was 48 and two months to be exact it was only then that I remembered what I had been told. It was certainly not in my plans to do at the time. That was six years ago. Since then I have often asked God the reason why and his reply has always been the same ‘it is about other people and how they will help me, treat me.’ I have always been a giver and I have found as I look back through my life that I have often been confronted with takers, those who take but when they have what they need they leave. I am an emotional mixture of despair, fear and sadness at the loss of my life, but I think Joy got destroyed in the crush. I am the hardest person to be around, to have around, but once you break through the despair and the sadness and the fear you will find a spark of Joy somewhere, because it is part of who we all are.
(Do I have to own up to knowing you, Nate and that you know my story very well? :D)