The Film Inside Out Resurrects the Lost Prayer of Lament

On Riley's birthday, her parents welcomed her into this world by proclaiming her to be a "bundle of joy." This phrase is an idiom that has come to mean "baby," but it's unwise to take it literally -- or to impose this expectation on a baby or anyone else.

The glowing spheres of Riley's early memories, however, did radiate an abundance of effervescent Joy -- with only fleeting appearances by other emotions such as Fear (which kept Riley safe) Disgust (which protected her from Broccoli) and Anger (which cared deeply about fairness). Early in the film, Sadness was relegated by Joy -- who was obsessed with keeping Riley happy -- to the confines of a small circle and ordered not to touch any of Riley's memories.

About this time, I was starting to worry that I had wandered into the film version of the 80s hit song, "Don't worry; Be happy." Charming as the Inside Out characters were, I was disturbed to think that audiences were, once again, going to have our minds bombarded with what seems like a cultural mandate to avoid, deny or repress any feelings that have been labeled as "negative" in service of feeling the more desirable, acceptable happiness.

When Riley was eleven, her family moved to a new city, and Murphy's Law took over the script. Their new house was dirty, and Disgust was activated. The moving van would be delayed several days, and Anger was brewing. A phone call informed her father that his new business venture was already in financial crisis. Tense and nervous, he left his family to tend to the business.

When Riley went to bed that first night in her new room in a sleeping bag on the dirty floor, there were no reasons to be happy. When her mom came to say goodnight, she recapped all the troubles of the day, noting that Riley's father was very stressed. A slight scowl appeared on Riley's face. Seeming not to notice, her mother thanked her, and continued. "Through all of this confusion, you've stayed our happy girl. If you and I can keep smiling, that would be a big help." Riley's scowl disappeared.

This scene took me back to a time earlier in my own life when I first shared my feelings with my family about growing up in our abusive, alcoholic home. My aunt articulated the usually unspoken rules of every such household: "Don't talk. Don't feel." She told me that "these things" should be keep confidential with a therapist, adding that she hoped I would stay the same "sunny girl I had always been." Having my truth and feelings buried by my family in the past -- and again in the present -- created a lonely place in my heart. I knew how Riley felt.

The next morning -- Riley's first day of school -- her worst fear came true. The teacher called on her, and while she was talking about the life she left behind in Minnesota, she cried. Joy was afraid that Riley's core happy memories were now overshadowed by Sadness. In a tussle over who was going to control the core memories from Minnesota, both Joy and Sadness were exiled into long-term memory. Without them, Riley's heart shut down. She couldn't be happy or sad.

That night, during the family's dinner, audiences witnessed a valiant effort by Disgusted Riley pretending to be happy, followed by Fearful Riley pretending to be happy. Then Angry Riley gave such a poor performance of being happy that her father's anger became predominant and banished Riley to her room. Later, he tried to cajole her into changing her feelings, "Come on, where's my happy girl?" Exiled -- hand in hand with his sad girl.

As Joy and Sadness wandered together in long-term memory, the story began to reveal a depth of awareness about human nature that was revealed by the Hebrews over 2,500 years ago. In the Book of Lamentations from the Hebrew Bible, different authors passionately express their sorrow and unhappiness over the destruction of Jerusalem. Giving voice to their despair opens their hearts to healing and restores their relationships with their God. In Inside Out, Riley's imaginary friend, BingBong, became the first character to demonstrate the classic format of Lament, including the transformation that results from this prayer practice. After BingBong's rocket was lost forever in the memory dump, he sat at the edge of the cliff crying out in anguish, "Riley can't be done with me!" Joy attempted to intervene in his heartbreak by saying "It'll be okay," and she danced frantically, singing BingBong's song. This increased his despair. The sweet, gentle, humble character of Sadness then took center stage -- her rightful place in this drama. She sat next to BingBong, put her hand on his shoulder, and said softly, "I'm sorry they took your rocket. Something you loved is gone. That's sad." BingBong wept profusely enfolded in the arms of Sadness. As he cried, he opened his heart to the great memories he had of Riley and recalled that they were best friends. More tears; then sniffles. Then BingBong dried his tears and said, "I'm okay now." Their journey continued. "How did you do that?" Joy asked Sadness. She shrugged in reply.

The character of Sadness was representing -- unearthing -- the aspect of human nature that the ancient authors of Lamentations knew: feelings of loss, hurt, despair and all other forms of emotional pain must be identified, expressed and received in order for wounds of the heart and soul to be healed. When this process is disrupted, as we witnessed in Inside Out, internal destruction occurs. However, as Sadness shared more details about Riley's memories, we discovered that many of her sad experiences had been acknowledged and embraced by her family and friends, and so they lived on in her as joyful memories of connection -- of being heard and loved.

Toward the end of the movie, the process of Lament made another significant appearance. After discovering that Riley had run away, her parents called the police and were experiencing monumental worry. Riley walked in the door, and immediately began her Lament. She stated how sorry she was to disappoint her parents by not being happy. But she missed her home and her friends and her hobbies and her backyard. She wept. Her parents received her heartbreak and embraced her. They told her they loved her and that they were sad, too.

Then it happened, for all to see on the big screen: the moment of transformation and healing brought forth through the power of Lament. As Riley wept, held in the safety of her father's arms, the tiniest, almost imperceptible smile appeared on her face -- opening the door for Joy to once again, flow into her heart. This process of Lament, allowed to be, marked the turning point in all of their lives. Similarly, Lament can facilitate a transformation in all of our lives, as well -- if it is allowed to be.

However, we receive such confusing messages about how to be, and when and why and how to express our feelings. For example, in a segment on the August 6, 2015 airing of The Dr. Oz Show, Deepak Chopra, physician and spiritual teacher, told viewers that experiencing the "healthy emotions of peace, laughter, joy, and equanimity" could help to override even genetic disposition to illness. OK, everyone! Don't worry, be happy, avoid disease! It sounds so easy, but without further explanation, this guidance could set us on a tragic path to denial. And, as Riley showed us, pretending doesn't lead to happiness, and true joy doesn't always come easily.

A few minutes later, Dr. Chopra offered advice to a caller who suffered from panic attacks and couldn't let go of her anger. "Anger is remembered pain," he said. "Fear is anticipated pain." He encouraged the caller to get in touch with her pain...to remember it, to feel it, to express it. Doing so -- even in writing -- Chopra said, will help to boost the immune system. He had just beautifully mirrored the message of Inside Out, and invited the resurrection of Lament.

Thousands of years before the worlds of science and medicine began to prove the benefits of identifying and expressing emotions, the ancient Hebrews already knew the importance of this process...including the value of writing. The Book of Lamentations, which documents a prayer practice addressed to God, begins with two-and-a-half chapters of what is described as a psalm of personal despair. Following this exhaustive expression of despair, which alerts us to the reality that this process takes longer than the 30 seconds allotted to it in the movie, the author reveals the moment of transformation that leads him (or her) to hope, thanksgiving, and praise. "...my soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is...but this I call to mind, and therefore, I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning." (Lamentations 3:17-23a NRSV)

In addition to modeling a process of healing, the writers of Lamentations offer aid to those of us who don't have loving families who will hear our laments. They remind us that even when other people are not available to witness and receive our expressions of pain, God is -- always present, always listening, always healing our hearts.

Our ancient ancestors showed us the way. And now science and movies and spiritual teachers on television are urging us to resurrect this practice of Lament -- for the wellbeing of our bodies, minds, hearts and souls.

I close my eyes and can still see that tiny smile appearing on Riley's face, and I know that Lament can, and will, heal.

Rev. Dr. Jade Angelica offers Spiritual Direction for individuals and groups throughout the US and abroad. http://www.uusdn.org/home/alphabetical-directory/angelica-jade-rev
She is the founder and director of the Healing Moments Alzheimer's Ministry http://healingmoments.org and author of
Where Two Worlds Touch: A Spiritual Journey Through Alzheimer's Disease.