This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
Pixar’s late-2020 release, Soul, has recently become my favorite Pixar movie of all time. Yes, I am familiar with their library of animated features. No, that’s not recency bias. I have found profound emotional connection with the message of this film. You might say that Soul has struck a cord with my soul (sorry about that). It is not only one of their best but also one of the most poignant films I’ve ever seen. That is definitely a surprising confession, as the build up to Soul’s release did nothing to entice my attention. The existential and metaphysical misadventures of two souls trying to flee their fate did not, at first, seem like something I’d be interested in. Boy, was I wrong.
If you don’t know, Soul tells the tale of Joe Gardner, a middle-aged music teacher who yearns to one day make it big as a jazz pianist. His current teaching gig is seen as just as stepping-stone on his way to living his dream of being a household name in the music industry. One day, Joe is invited to play in a gig that might just be his big break. But before that happens, he falls down an open manhole and dies. His disembodied soul finds itself on a moving sidewalk to the Great Beyond. Realizing this, he does whatever he can to get back to his body. “I’m not dying the very day I got my shot,” Joe protests. “I’m due, heck, I’m overdue! I’m not dying today, not when my life just started.” Soon comes across No. 22, another disembodied soul, but for a different reason. No. 22 hasn’t found her “spark” yet and therefore resists traveling to earth and actually living. The rest of the film is full of mishaps and existential escapades, complete with Joe’s soul occupying a cat.
The titular moment, though, occurs as Joe, once again in his original body, sits down at his piano in his apartment. It’s late. He’s just come from accompanying jazz legend Dorothea Williams and her band in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase his talents as a jazz pianist. The gig goes swimmingly, exactly as Joe has always imagined it would, complete with roaring applause. Yet afterwards, something’s missing. There’s an emptiness Joe feels. Something doesn’t add up. The editors do an effective job at portraying this sentiment by implementing a very limited sound design in these scenes. To assuage his apparent futility, though, Joe talks to Dorothea after the show. “I thought I’d feel different,” he says. What Joe had figured would fundamentally change his life forever didn’t.
Dorothea casts a disapproving look and says:
I heard this story about a fish.He swims up to this older fish and says, “I’m trying to find this thing they call ‘the ocean.’”
“The ocean?” says the older fish. “That’s what you’re in right now.”
“This?” says the young fish. “This is water. What I want is the ocean!”1
Joe is stunned. Indeed, for several beats the soundtrack is nothing but the din of life. The message is clear: the one thing that Joe has spent his entire life dreaming of he has finally achieved, only it didn’t do what he thought it would do to him. It didn’t fill him. It didn’t leave him satisfied or fulfilled.
So when Joe sits down at his piano — alone and wrestling with what to do now that he’s achieved his dream and it didn’t meet his expectations — he pauses, the long pause of disbelief. How could this be? How could this not be all that it was cracked up to be? This was his spark! This is the “thing” that made him tick. Piano was his reason for living. Or so Joe had thought.
It’s at this moment that Joe reaches his hands in his suit pockets and pulls out the trinkets No. 22 had collected while she had occupied his body: a whirligig, a pizza crust, 1/4 of a plain bagel, a lollipop, a spool of thread, and a used metro card. He stares at them and begins to play. These unremarkable items have a profound impact on Joe, and he’s suddenly swept up in memories of his life. Listening to jazz records with his dad. Biking underneath the warm summer sun. Fourth of July on top of a building, with the entire cityscape in view. Pecan pie in a diner. His first day as a music teacher. Playing piano for his aging dad. Feeling the cool waves rush upon his bare feet as he and his mom watch the sunset. Those were the moments that made up his beautiful life. No concert. No Grammys appearance. No thunderous applause. No record deals. Just “regular old living.”
I find such tremendous meaning in this moment. I found myself physically moved (read: visibly weeping) as these scenes transpired. My daughter Lydia had been watching, too, though I’m unsure if she had the same emotional experience as I did. A few minutes later in the movie, as Joe is explaining his newfound appreciation for life, my eyes welled up with tears that ran down my cheek. It didn’t help that at that precise moment my son Braxton ran over to me and bear-hugged my legs. I looked down at his precious face, which was entirely one of pure love, and I couldn’t help myself. I saw myself in Joe, as one who had mistaken his occupation for his spark, his dream for his identity, his calling for his purpose, when it was right in front of him the whole time. In my case, it was embracing my leg.
This is profoundly affecting notwithstanding one’s profession. It is commonplace to equate one’s work with one’s identity, even more so, one’s dream. “Hi, what do you do?” is a ubiquitous greeting with which we are familiar. Our jobs are, understandably, our primary source for making a living. But, to an even more jeopardizing degree, they often morph into sources of life itself — not merely money but meaning. We put our hopes and dreams into them, thinking that they can fill our deepest longings. We might assume our line of work can meet both practical and existential needs. You’re not just steaming milk for that patron’s incredibly confusing latte; you’re furthering a global mission. You’re “making the world a better place,” one grande flat white, shoe, shirt, or gizmo at a time.
This blurring-of-the-lines between the workplace as a place of business and a missional outlet allows for none too few to confuse corporate-branded ethics with moral significance. Such is what allows a soul, according to Soul’s mechanics, to get mired in obsession and eventually lose itself in that identity altogether. Earlier in the film, as Joe’s disembodied soul is getting the 411 on how the Great Before works via No. 22, they come across Moonwind who proceeds to tell them about “lost souls.” A “lost soul” is one who cannot let go of life’s anxieties and obsessions, resulting in severe disconnection from life altogether. I find it fascinating that the storytellers pitted lostness as the culmination of one’s unhedged obsession, creating a very palpable picture of what can happen when an outlet or an occupation can become overriding and overwhelming.
Careers as life-giving cisterns is a tenuous game. It gets complicated when our careers have become so vested with moral significance. As a pastor, I feel palpable amounts of tension regarding the notion of ministerial careerism, the effects of which are often less glaring. The notion of living as a clergyman suggest that one’s position in the church equates to one’s purpose in life. “Vocational ministry” is as susceptible, if not more, to falling into the religion of workism than most other occupations. If you were to take the work habits of many ministers and replace “pastor” with any other job title, we’d call them obsessives, with questionable priorities who are a little too in love with their jobs. There’s even a built-in excuse for a pastor to work exorbitant hours, burn the proverbial candle at both ends, and give up everything for the sake of the ministry. After all, it’s a purpose with a “higher calling,” one straight from the Man Upstairs.2
Our occupations and outlets certainly augment our existence, but they do not provide the fundamental fiber of life itself. They do not meet our deepest longings. Nor were they designed to. As David Gibson writes,
Life is not about the meaning that you can create for your own life, or the meaning that you can find in the universe by all your work and ambitions. You do not find meaning in life simply by finding a partner or having kids or being rich. You find meaning when you realize that God has given you life in his world and any one of those things as a gift to enjoy.3
When gifts become utilities to further our own ambitions, the purpose of the gift has been squandered. Life itself is a gift. This entire thing revolves around the uncanny undeserved-ness of it all. It is grace all the way down, all the way through.
For my own part, the ways in which I’ve failed my family and bowed to the god of careerism are more frequent than I’d ever care to admit. The good endeavors with which I am occupied — late-night meetings, studying, appointments, sermon prep, etc. — can themselves become expressways to missed moments. I pray to not miss too much, though, “for the sake of the ministry.” I pray to not sacrifice my family on the altar of a “higher calling.” Even as I engage in “doing the Lord’s work,” I pray to not lose sight of “regular old living.” But, in the end, even if (when) I do get lost — as many of us are prone to do from time to time — there’s a Shepherd who specializes in finding and recovering lost things. That’s sort of his specialty.4
Interestingly, as Jared Dees details, this “fish story” is a remix of both “The Little Fish,” by Fr. Anthony de Mello and/or David Foster Wallace’s famous anecdote, “This is Water.”
As an aside, didn’t Jesus himself tell us that we needed to renounce everything, including family, in order to be considered one of his disciples? (Lk 14:25–27) I must confess that I’m rather unimpressed with many of the commentaries I’ve scoured for wisdom as to how to make sense of Jesus’s words there. The purported “hatred” of one’s family certainly doesn’t get at the Savior’s meaning. Christ himself ensured his mother was cared for, while he was dangling from a cross. And his half-brother James was one of the ones to whom Jesus revealed his resurrected glory, which suggests to me that family is a pretty big deal. St. Paul, of course, made sure prospective ministers understood what it meant if one “desired the office of a bishop,” with one of the chief mainstays being the competent management of his own household. (1 Tm 3:4–5) Perhaps we can squabble on what exactly qualifies as “competent,” but I take that to mean that for as much as the pastor cares for God’s church, he ought to care that much more for his own home. This isn’t to say that the ecclesiastical investment isn’t worth it. Rather, it’s just to say that the familial one is worth a little bit more.
David Gibson, Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 112–13.
See, for example, Ezekiel 34:11–16 and all of Luke 15.