There’s a scene in Pixar’s new movie Soul where Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a struggling middle school music teacher, steps out of a jazz club after one of the most triumphant moments of his life and realizes he doesn’t feel the way he thought he would. He’s just performed with Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), fulfilling his life-long goal to “make it” as a professional musician.
“I’ve been waiting on this day for my entire life,” he says. “I thought I’d feel different.”
Dorothea, a popular saxophonist, and leader of her own jazz quartet, observes Joe sympathetically and then tells him a story about a little fish. The little fish swims up to an older fish and says, “I’m trying to find this thing called the ocean.”
“The ocean?” says the older fish. “That’s what you’re in right now.”
“This?” says the young fish incredulously. “This is water. What I want is the ocean.”
This little parable stands at the heart of one of the most ambitious films Pixar’s ever made—a film that arrived poignantly at the end of a year in which so many people had become weary of living.
Side-Stepping the Afterlife
I first heard about Soul several months ago via a podcast where the then-upcoming project was billed as “Disney takes on the afterlife.” That piqued my interest. I love when popular culture tackles existential themes. Months passed in the long and tedious slog that was 2020, and I forgot about the film. And then I started seeing little notifications on the internet that Soul would be released on Christmas Day. I knew nothing else about the film except what I’d heard months earlier: something-something afterlife. But the morning after Christmas, around one or two a.m., I pulled up Disney+ and pressed play, expecting a serious treatment of the afterlife. It never came.
True, when Joe ends up in a coma in the beginning of the film, permitting his soul to leave his body, it looked like it was going there. There being a blazing white light at the end of an interminable, ethereal road surrounded by pitch darkness. But we never get past where that road leads—whether to heaven or to “H-E-double-hockey-sticks.”
Instead, we journey to a place equally as interesting.
Joe’s soul actually ends up in The Great Before (“rebranded” as The You Seminar), a place where souls exist before they are sent to Earth to inhabit bodies in space-time. Here, ethereal spirit-like beings (all referred to as “Jerry”) help New Souls, monikered only by numbers, determine their personalities and quirks. The souls of people who have already died serve as mentors who help New Souls find their “spark” so they can finally be sent to live on Earth.
“Regular Old Living”
The Jerrys assume that Joe is a mentor, and they pair him with a difficult New Soul, 22, who has been through dozens of mentors—including Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Mother Theresa—and has yet to find her spark. 22 doesn’t care about Joe; she’s content living in The Great Before and thinks Earth is overrated. “I already know everything about Earth, and it’s not worth the trouble,” she tells him. Besides, “you can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on Earth is for.”
Initially, Joe doesn’t care about 22 either; the only thing he wants to do is return to his body and continue living his life—which, just before he fell down that manhole, had begun to look up. Joe buckles down anyway, determined to pretend to be helping 22, but always looking for a way to get back to his body. He finds that way, but through his hastiness, flubs the journey back, accidentally knocking 22 into his body and himself into a therapy cat. (This is, perhaps, the only meaningful spiritual theory posited by Soul: that your pets might indeed have one.)
Joe and 22 immediately begin searching for a way to get Joe back in his body and 22 back to the You Seminar. But, along the way, a strange thing happens: 22 slowly begins to see the pleasures of living on “this hellish planet.” She begins to feel the value of being alive.
One would be forgiven for thinking that the spark that New Souls seek is their purpose, their reason for living. But the movie goes to great pains to draw a line between one’s spark and one’s purpose. There is a difference between enjoyment of being alive and doing the thing or things that one feels they are alive to do.
“Maybe sky-watching can be my spark,” 22 enthuses. “Or walking! I’m really good at walking!”
“Those really aren’t purposes,” Joe responds. “That’s just regular old living.”
But that’s where Joe is wrong. Joe thinks his spark is playing jazz piano professionally—a dream he hasn’t been able to fulfill. Instead, he’s been doing a bunch of “regular old living” and feeling like he isn’t fulfilling his purpose.
Soul is a very pro-living movie: from the bright, happy, gauzy vibes of The Great Before, bubbling over with energetic, infant-like orbs, to the colorful, people-stuffed streets of New York City. Even those whom Joe initially meets on the path to The Great Beyond seem oddly unperturbed by death. Soul seems to be telling us that “regular old living”—sky-watching, walking down the street, sinking your teeth into a slice of fresh pizza (yes, the little things)—is the essence of being alive. Being able to enjoy those things is one’s spark. Our value, our worth, our allowance for enjoyment isn’t correlational to what we do.
As the film’s co-director Pete Doctor told Relevant, “[Purpose] is not just meant to be localized over here and then the rest of my life happens. All of life is spiritual. Everything you do contributes to who you are as a person and to the overall meaning of your life.”
And that’s an important message for the world coming out of one of the most difficult years in recent history. A year in which so many of us couldn’t do many of the things that we view as sources of joy, happiness, and satisfaction. A year in which so many were unable to do the work that they feel gives their life meaning and purpose. I doubt many would say they enjoyed 2020. At best, we did a bunch of “regular old living,” and didn’t enjoy it very much at all.
Don’t miss the ocean for the water.
None of the difficulties that the global community has faced this year can be minimized. Indeed, the biggest of those difficulties is set to remain with us for the foreseeable future. In the grip of lockdowns, social distancing, and fear over the spread of a mutated version of the coronavirus that new vaccines have only begun to be tested against, it is normal to feel as though one is missing out on real life. It is normal to feel like the young fish in Dorothea’s parable—seeing the water all around but not seeing the ocean.
The American Psychological Association’s 2020 survey of mental health in America “found that nearly 8 in 10 adults (78%) say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, while 3 in 5 (60%) say the number of issues America faces is overwhelming to them.” Young people especially are being affected at concerning rates:
Most Gen Z teens ages 13–17 (81%) report they have experienced negative impacts of pandemic-related school closures, and half (51%) say the pandemic makes planning for their future feel impossible . . . Two in three Gen Z adults in college (67%) say the [same].
Because we aren’t doing the things that we are used to doing, we can feel as though we are not truly living. We can feel like 22 as she went through the motions of trying out different activities in the Hall of Everything: just meh.
But life is still happening. Perhaps the waters are cold, and vicious waves crash around us, but we are in the ocean.
The words of N.D. Wilson come to mind:
The world is beautiful but badly broken. St. Paul said that it groans, but I love it even in its groaning. I love this round stage where we act out the tragedies and the comedies of history. I love it with all of its villains and petty liars and self-righteous pompers. I love the ants and the laughter of wide-eyed children encountering their first butterfly. I love it as it is, because it is a story, and it isn’t stuck in one place. It is full of conflict and darkness like every good story.
Those words sound ridiculously optimistic coming out of the year that we’ve had. But doom and gloom haven’t served us well. Is Earth still, as 22 estimates, a “hellish planet”? Probably. But there are heavenly glimpses rife throughout. And that is what Soul highlights. What began with Joe running away from death and 22 running away from life, ends with both of them embracing delight in what the poet Jack Gilbert called “the ruthless furnace of this world.”
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
That is the message of Soul. Our “spark” is life itself: being alive—stubbornly alive—at this moment. We aren’t looking for the ocean. We are in it right now—yes, the ocean of sharks and rip currents and tsunamis, but also the ocean of tropical islands and starfish and coral reefs. We will meet with waves of terror, but we must risk life and delight through it all.
Cover image by Diego Mora Barr.