I saw Pixar’s Inside Out a few weeks ago at the Pinecrest Amphitheater, an outdoor movie theater on the shore of Pinecrest Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Under the stars, surrounded by family and with the smells of pine and campfires in the air, the setting was beautiful and memorable. Fitting for a movie about the mystery, joy and sadness of memory.
Kira and I saw the movie in the middle of a two week vacation that took us to Northern California and Oregon (and for about an hour, Washington), where we experienced beauty of the first order, both in nature and in culture. We took pictures and bought souvenirs, but the intensity of the beauty we experienced will only live on in our memories, and possibly also in the ways the memories will shape our personalities and those of our children. But the visceral feelings of being there at a certain moment in time–the snowmelt water of the Stanislaus River, the soft sand of Nye Beach at sunset, the taste of a coconut blackberry scone–are forever in the past.
Such is the nature of joy. It pulsates with life and vibrancy because, not in spite of, its dependency on ephemerality. On anticipation, on memory, on the here-and-it’s-gone nature of existing in time. Joy is inescapably bound up with time, and with its accompanying challenges (decay, forgetfulness, loss, death). As Inside Out so colorfully illustrates, joy and sadness are the emotions most necessarily in conversation. They are forever in a dance, tempering and inflaming the other, stirring up a spiral of restlessness that can only find peace in God (but which is so often searched for by attempting to replicate pleasures or past pangs of joy).
A few years ago I wrote a post on joy inspired by Zadie Smith and C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on the subject. Like Inside Out, I focused on memory as the catalyst for the happy/sad dichotomy for joy:
…The longing for those happy experiences and the intense recognition that they will never be replicated in just the same way… that’s what stirs up joy. Sehnsucht. And it’s not just nostalgia for the past. It’s nostalgia for a future that a lifetime full of accumulated pangs and pleasures leads us to believe exists. Somewhere. Joy is the ineffable, the transcendent, the sublime stasis which a million little experiences grasp at but can never fully capture. An ultimate settledness for which our hearts now restlessly pine.
This is why Smith feels that there is something melancholy about joy, that it has such a paradoxical capacity to bring us pain. And perhaps that is why in today’s world–so untrusted and unstable, where we’re all so aware of contingency and fragility–the idea of joy makes a lot more sense when articulated as a groaning for completion rather than a smiling-face present perfection.
As Kira and I drove home from Oregon after our trip ended, we both shed tears. Tears for the impermanence of such intense brushes with beauty. Tears for the life-goes-on nature of reality. Tears for the way the world is. Lacrimae rerum. Glorious and fleeting and fragile. Forever growing, forever groaning. Forever dying. And rising to new life.