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  • M.C. Thomas

Why Storytelling Matters

Pete Docter gave a speech at the Academy Awards after his film Inside Out won for best animated movie. The last part of it always stuck with me: "Anyone out there who's in junior high, high school, working it out, suffering - there are days you're gonna feel sad, you're gonna feel angry, you're gonna be scared. That's nothing you can choose, but you can make stuff. Make films. Draw. Write. It'll make a world of difference."

While he directs this quote at kids and teens, I believe it applies to all of us. This has been a challenging year for so many people. Illness. Job loss. Isolation. Civil unrest. Fear. It's easy to feel hopeless or angry after being laid off. It's normal to be unsure of what to tell a loved one who's going through a hard time. It's understandable to want to fast-forward to the year 2021 and dream of something better.

During these tough and unsure times, sometimes it takes a story to help us to stop and relax, but also to learn and think. This is what storytellers like Pete Docter do so well. His films Inside Out and Soul may look like silly kid's movies on the outside, but on the inside, they have powerful messages that resonate with me more as an adult than they would have as a kid. Both movies have a scene where the main character's worldview is challenged and a scene where they have an epiphany. I want to dive into the life lessons of these two stories, starting with Inside Out.

Inside Out is about sentient emotions that live in the head of 11-year-old Riley, who is dealing with her family moving across the country. The two main characters are personifications of Joy (played by Amy Poehler) and Sadness (played by Phyllis Smith). There are two particular scenes with these characters that really stand out to me:

Worldview Challenged: The first scene shows Joy and Sadness being led to a train station by a character named Bing Bong, an old imaginary friend of Riley's who realizes she is forgetting about him as she grows older. This devastates him. Joy, by her nature, does everything in her power to distract him and make him forget about his sadness. This fails miserably, so Sadness, by her nature, sits down with him and lets him talk it out. Joy actually scolds Sadness for this, saying, "Don't make him feel worse." But it doesn't. It's therapeutic for him.

The scene made me think of times where I've tried to comfort someone by saying "just the right thing" or by trying to make them laugh or smile when they're clearly not in the mood. It helped me realize that the simple act of sitting down with someone and listening to them is the best thing I can do. In a year where there's been plenty of sadness to go around, this is a nice reminder of the importance of being supportive, being a good listener, and just being there for someone.

Epiphany: The other scene is the climax of the film, where Riley is on a bus trying to go back to her old home. She had spent the whole movie trying to be strong and happy for her parents after moving, but had suppressed her real feelings about missing her old friends and her old life. This is the first time Joy doesn't shut down Sadness, and actually allows her to take over the "control panel" of Riley's emotions. Riley finally breaks down in front of her parents, allowing her to find balance within her emotional state and come to terms with the move in a healthy way.

While the first scene was about the importance of listening to others, this scene is about the importance of opening yourself up and recognizing that showing vulnerability isn't weakness. It's called being human. These two scenes are profound, deep, and express why storytelling is such an important thing.

While Inside Out dealt with experiencing emotions, Soul was all about experiencing life. If you haven't seen it yet, I will be discussing SPOILERS. It's on Disney+ now, and I highly recommend it.

Soul is about Joe Gardner (played by Jamie Foxx), a middle school band teacher who wants to be a professional jazz musician. To him, music isn't just a passion. It's his purpose and his reason for living. In his mind, if he doesn't achieve his dream, his life will have been a waste.

He finally gets the gig of his life...and he dies. Ending up in the world of souls, he's tasked with helping a "lost soul" named 22 (played by Tina Fey) find her purpose in life, thus allowing her access to Earth.

Through a crazy and hilarious sequence of events, Joe and 22 end up on Earth, but with 22 in Joe's body and Joe in the body of a cat. While Joe obsesses over getting back into his body and making his audition, 22 has human experiences for the first time, including smelling and tasting pizza, feeling the cool autumn breeze on her skin, and even getting yelled at by a guy on the subway. They end up in a barbershop, which leads to Joe's worldview being challenged.

Worldview Challenged: The barber, Dez, is a friendly confidante of Joe's. We realize as an audience that over the years, Joe had been so obsessed with talking about jazz, that he'd never asked Dez about his own life. Dez's true passion was becoming a veterinarian, but because he needed to care for his sick daughter, he chose the more affordable route of becoming a barber. 22 innocently asks him, "Doesn't that make you sad?"

But it doesn't. Dez takes joy in what he does every day. Not just cutting hair, but being able to connect with people and appreciate how much they open up to him when they're in that barber's chair. "I'm still saving lives," as he puts it.

This is such a great reminder that we all have grand plans for our life, but many times they get derailed for one reason or another. Our life isn't about just one purpose, but about the purpose we bring to anything we do.

Epiphany: At the end of the movie, Joe finally gets his big gig. He plays the show of his life with a legendary jazz quartet. And afterward, he doesn't feel fulfilled like he thought he would. He realized that his passion for music went deeper than making it big. He goes back to his apartment and plays an emotional piece on the piano. One that reminds him of all the little joys in his life: playing by the ocean as a kid, learning music from his late dad, etc.

Disney has always made movies about "wishing upon a star" and chasing your dreams, so it's refreshing to see a movie where the main character's dream isn't what he thought it was. It's a powerful message of drawing joy from the people and the little experiences in life, rather than from achieving one big dream.

2020 has been a very tough year, so I hope this post has been an uplifting one. Storytelling and creativity are a vital part of our lives, and I encourage anyone with a story, a song, or a work of art within them to let it out and use it to encourage others. During these tough times, be a light. Be a listener to those who need to be heard. Express your emotions to a close friend or family member. Enjoy any little thing in life you can, even when the rest of life is difficult. Thanks for reading. I love you all, happy New Year, and may 2021 be a good one!

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