Joy vs. Sadness…who is the real star?

A few weeks ago I saw the new Pixar movie Inside Out. Pixar has a history of producing very clever, adult-friendly kid movies that are quite ingenious so I was confident this movie would prove to be no different. Not only was it enjoyable; I must say that I actually learned something very valuable from an animated movie.

For as long as I can remember I never particularly liked to feel sad (I suppose nobody does). I always did my best to avoid this emotion. However, when my daughter was born with a rare genetic syndrome I found it impossible to avoid. I was drowning in sadness and honestly thought that I might never find my way back to happiness.   Eventually, and I don’t really even remember how or why, sadness slowly dissipated and little bits of joy entered my world. It felt great and gave me hope. I remember thinking to myself that I would never allow myself to be sad again and for years I have been working hard to avoid that dreaded emotion.

The movie Inside Out is centered on emotions and tells the story of how one eleven-year girl tries to make sense of them all. Each emotion is represented by a different character. The main character in the movie is the emotion Joy. Joy has taken it upon herself to make sure that the little girl never experiences one moment of sadness. For almost the first hour of the movie you will see Joy working overtime to keep sadness out of the picture. The film does an excellent job depicting how incredibly difficult it is (impossible really) to always be happy. I found myself identifying with Joy quite a bit. Everyday I spend a great deal of my energy staying clear of anything that is going to make me sad. I try not to think about what the future holds for Sydney or what could have been had she been born without SMS. Whenever my thoughts venture in that direction I can feel sadness creeping in. I can relate to a particular scene in the movie when the little girl begins to feel sad and then you see how quickly sadness can infect everything in her mind. Joy is frantically running after sadness to make her stop converting all the happy memories into sad ones. I smiled because I do this all the time and always find the whole dance exhausting!

As the movie continues to delve into the emotions of this young pre-adolescent girl I began to see a real change occur in the interaction between joy and sadness. It was a subtle shift at first but then it became quite clear. Joy seemed to be losing her spotlight and sadness was taking a front and center spot in the psyche of this young girl. My initial reaction was concern and thought that Joy better get her act together and turn things around before this girl goes to a dark emotional place – but then it became obvious that sadness was actually in control and maybe that was not necessarily a bad thing.

I have always taken pride in how in touch I am with my own emotions. I am the first to own when I am sad, angry, or scared. I have never once tried to gloss over or downplay my situation with Sydney nor have I ever tried to deny the severity of her condition. I simply thought that being sad was counter productive and that true growth only occurred when you are happy, positive, and hopeful. I was truly caught off guard when a children’s movie taught me a very valuable lesson – sadness isn’t all bad. The real heroine of the movie was in fact sadness not joy. It was sadness that motivated her to change what wasn’t working, accept what couldn’t be changed, and move forward towards a more hopeful attitude – it provided closure.

For the past several months I have struggled with feelings of sadness for Sydney. I am really not sure what brought these feelings on this time but I think with a special needs child it is not uncommon. It can feel daunting to care for someone who simply cannot care for herself. It is both physically and emotionally draining with little to no opportunity for reprieve. My solution has been to focus on all the good things in our life. In some instances this can be very successful but in this case it was not. The sad feelings found their way back.

As I sat in that movie theater I realized something quite life changing for me. Sadness is very powerful and if you can allow yourself to go there for a while – long enough to work through it – you are likely to accomplish some amazing things. When I look back on the months following Sydney’s diagnosis and the profound sadness I was feeling; I realize only now that it was sadness that motivated me to reach out to other families, it was sadness that inspired me to write about my journey with special needs, and it was sadness that encouraged me to start the SMSRF.

Joy will certainly make you happy but sadness will make you grow. Thanks to Pixar I am going to allow myself to feel sad now and then because I know it will lead to great personal growth.