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?