My oldest daughter turned eight years old (!) and had very simple desires for a birthday party. She just wanted to eat some Mexican food and hang out and watch a movie. She probably would have been happy to do more than that, but she knows that our family doesn’t go all out for every birthday. Simple and small is just fine. And she was plenty happy to have such a small celebration. Two friends, quiet(ish) playing, Ole’s Guacamoles, and then watching Inside Out just before crashing in the living room.

I’m surprised and delighted that Ryann likes that movie so much. I went to see it by myself and wasn’t sure if it would be accessible enough for her. I think it’s a genius concept. Personifying emotions and watching the drama of human growth (Riley is the little girl in whom these emotions live) through those characters was a great idea. The day after the party, I watched the bonus feature on how the director and story developers picked their way along the path to finding this story. I imagined, just on first watching it, that it must have been very difficult to put the pieces together. It was more difficult than I thought.

Originally, the main foil for Joy, the main character, was Fear. The integration of Joy and Fear was what drove the story, but Joy ended up coming out as too rough and strong of a character that way. The director, Peter Docter, ultimately realized that it was not fear that marked him and the relationships he loved best. It was sadness. Those with whom he wept and mourned were those who he loved most. Putting Sadness at the center of the story of Riley’s development was a really bold call, I think. Sadness is just about the antithesis of what we and our children are taught to celebrate in our culture. But it works so well in the story.

I think Inside Out‘s message about the necessity and power of sadness is instructive for anyone who watches the film. The truth is, our culture tends to tell the story of our lives the way that Joy controls the story at the beginning of the film. Everything must always be happy. Happiness is the chief end of any person. And if something makes you happy, you should do. If something or someone makes you unhappy, you should avoid that thing or person. Happiness may be the highest of virtues in our Western world. “Do what makes you happy!” is the driving ethic of our day.

It makes a load of sense. Happiness is… nice. It’s pleasurable. Happiness is great! I love being happy. From the simple happiness of a really nice meal to the chest-bursting happiness of watching my kids be awesome. Happiness, though, is too thin a target, I think. It doesn’t have enough heft to bear up the weight of life. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with happiness. It’s that there’s something wrong with the world and perpetually seeking happiness and happiness alone doesn’t properly grapple with the way the world is.

Ultimately, our happiness will run up against the fracturing inherent to being human. Loneliness and sadness plague us as people. And it’s not because we merely need to change our partner or our career. There is an intrinsic sadness to being alive in the world the way it is. We are people with hopes and expectations that, quite simply, the world cannot live up to. And once we find people and circumstances that make us happy, the ephemeral nature of life means those circumstances are all too brief. Something about the rotating and shifting nature of life means that you’ll never have things aligned in such a way to be perpetually happy. To pursue happiness as the meaning of your life means you will ultimately devote yourself to despair. You’re making ultimate something that can only be experienced temporarily.

Embracing sadness, though, frees us to experience and move through life for all its fullness. Loss and lament are intrinsic to being alive. Beyond that, being profoundly uncomfortable with our circumstances is part of our lot. People come up with a variety of ways to explain and alleviate this, but the truth, I think, is that people are inescapably sad because things are not as they should be. Some part of us, in some deeply nagging and painful way, is telling us that we have lost something we’ve never seen. Lonely people feel that they shouldn’t be lonely. The mourners weep that they should not experience such final separation. So many of us can’t help but confess that we find the world around us disappointing. We want something more than what we see.

Christians often think they are meant to walk around with some perma-smile on their face. As if we, the Religiously Correct Ones, have now solved the puzzle and have the key to being happy. But the truth of what we believe does not presently heal all the fractures that we fall into from time to time. The spiritual crust of the Earth is still deeply rent in places that transcend our own healing. And beyond the universal fracture, we are more aware than ever that something is deeply wrong with us. That though we are told again and again that we are infinitely loved, we are frustrated by the truth that we persistently turn from love. Christians, it seems, have more reason to be sad than just about anyone.

But we are not masochists. We do not delight in sadness. We do not wallow in despair. It’s just that we acknowledge the full picture of the way of the world and the place we are heading. We sing of our discontent and put our face towards a reality that is invasive and yet far off. We are a people torn in two, from within and from without.

The Church has learned to designate a time in the calendar where we take stock of what causes this within us and within the world and we set our face towards the solution. Lent teaches us to pay attention to the sadness of our world, of our deeply flawed selves. We mourn the temporary nature of life and the darkness that we wander towards by instinct. But at the same time, we rejoice in the coming of Easter. We rejoice that the heartbeat, the icon of this darkness- the Grave, is shattered from the inside, freeing us to put our eyes forward in hope. We do not wallow in sadness, neither do we run from it. Our sadness is tinged with hope, a hope that tells us this sadness is temporary.

We are people on the way. We are perpetually at odds with a world that is a bewildering confusion of hope promised and hope shattered. We are torn by being loved and being persistently unloveable. We look forward to a Home that is far off and yet running towards us. The Christian story makes sense of the peaks and valleys of being human, the twists and turns. Lent reminds us that God embraces us for who we are, who he made us to be, and the dreams, the inexplicable hopes that have crumbled around us. He scoops them up and carries us down the road, towards Home. Home forever with him.

This is the help extended to us by the Church, the school of repentance which alone will make it possible to receive Easter not as mere permission to eat, to drink, and to relax, but indeed as the end of the ‘old’ in us, as our entrance into the ‘new.’ … For each year Lent and Easter are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection. A journey, a pilgrimage! Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the ‘bright sadness’ of Lent, we see — far, far away — the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent’s sadness bright and our lenten effort a ‘spiritual spring.’ The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon.“-Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent