Soul, the latest CG animated film from Disney and Pixar, speaks to me on a very deep and personal level. It’s not just that it’s about an older minority protagonist who chafes at family pressure when it comes to doing what’s safe and expected. Nor is it that the movie is set in New York City, where the familiar sights and sounds make me oddly nostalgic in a time when stepping foot outside can be a stressful decision in itself. What really hits home is one of the core messages of Soul, which is to be aware of how we as people often confuse inspiration, passion, purpose, and fulfillment—and how doing so can hold us back in life in fundamental ways.
The story of Soul follows Joe Gardner, a black middle-aged middle school music teacher who still dreams of being a professional jazz musician (the long overdue first black protagonist in a Pixar film). When a rare opportunity to play with one of the greats comes knocking, an ecstatic Joe gets caught in an accident that causes his soul to leave his body. Desperate to avoid the afterlife and get back to the land of the living (and his gig), he winds up as the mentor to 22, a soul that for thousands of years has failed to find the spark to become a full-fledged living being, and who sees her pre-life to be much more appealing than life on Earth.
Whether it’s Joe’s firm belief that his purpose in life is to play jazz, or the pre-life system that brings history’s greats in as mentors to guide those like 22 to begin life, Soul highlights the way people often think about what it means to live a great life. We celebrate those who follow their passion and transform them into monumental discoveries and achievements. We think having a greater purpose is the key to reaching greater heights. But just as Joe throughout the film is often so obsessed with his life-long aspiration that he fails to see the positive influence he gives (and receives) from those around him, it’s all too easy to feel like a failure when we focus only on destinations and not journeys.
Although I don’t see myself as being in a completely similar position to Joe, Soul made me realize something: for whatever reason, I often feel a lingering sense of guilt over not accomplishing more than I should have, or was supposed to. On a certain level, it can feel ridiculous. I’m at least fairly proud of the things I’ve managed to see and do in my life, achievements that I know took intelligence, dedication, and maybe even a bit of courage. Yet, I still see myself as rarely having ever gone the distance that can leave myself without any regrets. A career switch may have truly turned out for the better on a personal level, but still leaves me feeling that I left some potential unfulfilled. Even in the context of this blog here, I sometimes criticize myself for not having improved my writing as rapidly as I should have been, and for not having the drive to force that change upon myself. This guilt is in some ways internal and in other ways external, but the result is the same.
Thanks to Soul, I realize now that I do indeed get caught up in conflating inspiration with passion, purpose with fulfillment, and so on. I haven’t resolved what exactly this means for me, or what it is that I ultimately will feel once I’ve sorted out these feelings and the degree to which I value them, but it has me on a long road of introspection. Not every film can do that, which makes having watched Soul all the more worthwhile.