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[SPOILER ALERT] Pixar's SOUL Corrects Our Romantic Notions of the Self with Jazz

I can’t say enough good things about Pixar’s new film SOUL; it is so creative, so funny, so beautiful, and so moving. But I’m not enough of an artist to talk intelligently about those things. I’m a philosopher, so I’ll talk about what I take to be the moral of this story – one that I believe we desperately need today.

A Romantic Notion of the Self

The idea that SOUL defies is so ubiquitous in our culture it’s hard for me to even pick an example to demonstrate my point. It’s the gospel of the self: that undefined, totally unique thing deep down inside of me that I must discover and “be true to” in order to live a life with any meaning. I must be defiantly original, talented, quirky, different, SPECIAL. I must change the world, make my mark, I’ve got big dreams! Nothing ordinary for me, no sir! And boring? GOD FORBID.

I don’t mean to condemn these ideas outright. I truly believe that every human being is a completely unique and unrepeatable individual who has real meaning and purpose in the universe. Yes, every person is special. But also, you know, they’re not. Our struggles are truly so similar, our sins so unremarkable, our personal talents … important, but not all-important. I may have a special calling, or I may be called to simple faithfulness and ‘boring’ reliability. I may not (I shudder to say it) be particularly smart or particularly beautiful or particularly talented. Perhaps I’m not quirky or outrageous or astonishing. Perhaps my childhood dream is quite outlandish. If I settle for a normal life, won’t I always feel that there should have been so much more?

A Twist Ending

In SOUL, Joe is a middle school teacher who loves jazz. His students are mostly uninspiring. Settling down to a full-time position will get in the way of his ‘gigs,’ where he really gets to enjoy playing the piano. Being a decent American, I’ve been Disney-fied enough to know what must come next. Joe has to risk his mother’s disapproval, quit the job, and go live his dream as a jazz musician! OR, (the viewer thinks to herself), the spiritual journey he embarks upon while in a coma will show him his true purpose was teaching after all! That’s his true spark – inspiring the younger generation! Either way, jazz or teaching jazz is his true calling, what he was born to do. That’s his true self, which he must discover and express.

But while sojourning in the “before place” during his coma, he meets a pre-existent soul, 22, who cannot find her ‘spark’, her ‘purpose’, and therefore has not proceeded to life on earth. What’s the matter with this soul? She has no special talent or any attraction to a particular activity.

While trapped in Joe’s body back on earth, however, 22 discovers some things: the taste of pizza when you’re starving, the beauty of rustling fall leaves in the sunlight, the mesmerizing effect of gazing at a helicopter seed as it flutters to the earth. She has a conversation with Dez, the barber, that serves as the pivotal moment for the whole movie. Joe said that Dez was born to be a barber. But 22 finds out that Dez originally had a passion to become a veterinarian. He had to give it up to care for his sick daughter. She expresses out loud her assumption that he is therefore unhappy as a barber. “Hold on a minute!” Dez gently chastises. He is very happy as a barber, in fact. His life is good.

22 refers to several activities as ‘jazzing’: Joe’s telling his mother what he really wants, 22’s conversation with the barber… jazzing seems to refer to anything that is fairly spontaneous and simply true.

When Joe is able to regain his body, he finally plays that all important gig – the one that will launch him into a real career as a jazz musician. But like so many who came before him, he finds that it didn’t satisfy in the way he had expected. He didn’t feel that his life was suddenly full of meaning and purpose.

In the end, Joe is willing to sacrifice himself to save 22. He faces death with calm. After receiving another chance, the movie ends without telling us what Joe chooses – gigging or teaching? And that’s precisely the point. Joe will simply decide what to do because both of these lives are good choices. Life isn’t about discovering one’s destiny and fulfilling it. The self isn’t something prefabricated and just waiting to be properly expressed. The self is the person we become as we make choices. We might have had just as good of a life with five other choices than the one we made. Joe wasn’t born to play jazz. He loves jazz because his father taught him to love jazz. If he chooses the gig, that’s his purpose. If he chooses the classroom, that’s his purpose. He’s good at both.

The Self as Jazz

What 22 realizes is that she doesn’t need a special talent or exceptional ability. It’s good enough to simply live. There are many directions she could go to have a good life. When we choose between good alternatives, we’re jazzing. Jazz builds on a central melody, just as our lives are built on our immutable characteristics. But that’s where destiny ends. The jazz musician uses the central melody to riff. He can take it in a variety of directions without any being a mistake. We, too, can be happy in some subset of jobs, or with some subset of people as a spouse, or with some subset of hobbies. Not all jobs or people or hobbies are just as good for any one individual – our personality is the central melody that sets bounds on what can work well for us. But as jazz demonstrates, the riffing can get very experimental and still be very, very good.

As a Christian I can’t help but think of the theological insight at play here. Adam and Eve didn’t become true ‘selves’ by choosing to disobey God, as some believe. In the garden, they could make good, creative choices every day, naming the animals, relating to one another and God, planting, playing. Every day, they could choose to remain in harmony with God. Are these not the choices of noble beings with reason and will, even if they don’t involve any sin at all?? Indeed, persons – selves. In the fullness of the Kingdom, we will build, explore, contemplate, and relate, without any evil or sorrow at all. We will be jazzing.

The self is not some mystical thing buried inside you that must be discovered. It’s just you as you are now. It may be worth exploring a bit but doing so won’t reveal your pre-determined path through this life, because there is no such thing.

There may be particular things God wants us to do, but mostly it is up to us to decide among many good alternatives. Whatever you do, do it for God. All the unremarkable things: taking the kids to the dentist, bringing a casserole to that grieving friend, feeling one’s body sink into soft grass, reading articles to figure out how to vote. In the end, meaning and purpose come from the same place we’ve always known they did: goodness, truth, and beauty. You don’t need to be original to matter. You probably haven’t missed your calling or God’s will or your one true love. Your life can be very good. Just live.

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