By Caroline Sun
During the pandemic, I developed a hobby for watching movies, and I mean watching them attentively and trying to find the meaning or the message behind the story’s plot. One benefit that I have experienced from it is that I learned some life experiences from what the characters go through. I guess that partly replaces the experience I’m missing in real life due to the pandemic.
Not long ago, I watched the movie “Soul”. It’s one of the latest films created by Disney and Pixar Animation Films and this week it became a Golden Globe Winner in the categories of “Best Motion Picture” and “Best Original Score”. I had heard good reviews on the movie, and I gave the movie a try. Watching it was a comforting experience, and here is why.
Joey Gardner is the main character of the movie. In the beginning, he is first the part-time music teacher at a school who yearns to play piano professionally full-time. Not much later, he gets a call from an old student who is playing the drums in a professional band led by Dorothy Williams, a renowned saxophone player. Jo’s old student tells him that they need a pianist and Jo is asked to go for an audition. He gets there and is accepted to play the night’s gig with the band. He is so excited that, when he’s heading home while talking on the phone, he falls into a hole on a construction site.
He wakes up as a “soul”, heading for the “Great Beyond”, the gate where people cross to die. Jo panics and tries to get back, but instead lands in the place called the “Great Before”, where new souls live before going to Earth. These new souls are named with numbers and they are supervised by counsellors. Terry is another character in the movie who is kind of an accountant, responsible for keeping track of the number of souls in the Great Before and the Great Beyond. New souls can get to Earth by the Earth Portal and they need to have an Earth badge. The counsellors suppose that Jo is one of the mentors, who are responsible for helping new souls discover their “spark”, which is a general interest they have for an activity, for example, painting. Additionally, having this spark is essential before getting an Earth badge.
Jo gets paired with soul number 22, who is especially problematic because she has been searching for her spark for centuries. Jo reveals to 22 that he needs to get back to Earth and 22 is willing to give Jo her Earth badge because she then gets to “skip” life. 22 then leads Jo to a character called Moonwind, who can help him get back to his body on Earth. When Moonwind accidentally allows Jo to go back to Earth, Jo falls into the body of a therapeutic cat, resting near Jo’s body, which is currently in a coma and resting in a hospital. Accidentally, Jo also pushed 22 onto Earth and, unfortunately, 22 is now in the body of Jo. When Jo and 22 get out of the hospital, Jo, in the body of the cat, prepares 22 to get to the location of the gig where they plan to meet Moonwind to do a spiritual procedure to put Jo back into his body. But when they meet Moonwind, 22 is unwilling to give Jo his body back because she is finally enjoying life. She, surprisingly, enjoyed many things about living on Earth that were impossible to enjoy in the Great Beyond, such as the amazing taste of New York pizza.
By this time, Terry, who was responsible for finding Jo, brings Jo and 22 back to the Great Before. Everyone then realizes that, enthusiastically, 22 has an Earth badge. Seeing that Jo is angry at her, 22 gives him her badge and Jo goes back to Earth. He plays magnificently during the gig, but he feels differently than he thought he would after playing the gig of his life; he feels like something is missing.
He realizes that he was wrong about the thought that he only needed music and this gig to make him feel happy and to make his life meaningful. He feels guilty to have taken 22’s Earth badge away and decides to return to the Great Before to give 22 her chance. When Jo meets 22, she is terrified to go to Earth without a spark, but Jo reveals to her that “Your spark isn’t your purpose. That last box fills in when you’re reading to come live.” 22 finally is ready to go on Earth and live her life and Jo gets a second chance to live on Earth too.
The most important theme that resonated with me throughout the movie is the following: it is wrong to believe that people need to know their life purpose is before being able to qualify their life as being meaningful. Joe seemed like he knew what his life’s purpose was. He loves jazz and piano and, for him, they are the things that make his life meaningful. According to what he says, jazz was his calling since he was a kid. However, what Jo only understands later is that knowing what your purpose is isn’t essential to enjoying life. On the contrary, knowing your passion too clearly and focussing on it all the time makes your life uninteresting and unfulfilling.
The explanation behind that is simple. When people are focused on one thing in their lives, the rest of the world loses its importance and turns blurry. So, because Jo was so focused on it and talked only about jazz to everyone including the barber who cut his hair, he, unintentionally, seemed like a narrow-minded person. Besides, there wasn’t anything else interesting going on in his life; he even thought he didn’t need to have a love life before he could play piano with Dorothea Williams’ band. So, when he reviews the major events of his life, he finds that his life was uneventful and meaningless because the things he had deemed unnecessary to have in his life, such as romantic relationships, turned out to be able to make a life very meaningful.
According to the movie, what brings meaning into life are also the small things. When 22 was in the body of Jo, she got to experience many things, including the taste of food, the sight of an autumn day, the laughter of a child or two friends chatting. These things could be called “the simple pleasure of life”, which were impossible to experience in the Great Before. Those same pleasures also made 22 realize that she liked living on Earth and it wasn’t essential to know what her “spark” is. Contrary to what 22 and Jo thought, a soul’s “spark” is not their purpose; it is only a vague interest in some specialty.
In sum, instead of focusing on finding their purpose, people should start living and find ways to enjoy life. When we are willing to experience things, we are open to new knowledge and therefore get a larger perspective of the world, which could help us more than we think. Sometimes, I had the same kind of thinking as 22. I wanted my life to be meaningful right this second and I could only do that by knowing what I was passionate about. If I don’t, I would be living purposelessly and there wouldn’t be any point in studying or doing extracurriculars. But I then asked myself “Does that mean I shouldn’t do anything until I found out what my purpose was?” and “Is it even realistic and logical to faithfully wait for a signal from someone or something that I was destined to pursue a unique career in my life?”. I secretly thought that it was ridiculous. It turns out that my instincts were right. I do not wish to do extracurricular activities or be interested in the things I learn in class to be solely dedicated to discovering my future career. I want myself to be able to enjoy the things I do and the friends I make while intentionally looking out for possible interests. During the pandemic, it has not always been easy to enjoy life; we lost so much that sense of being able to do whatever we want. So, I told myself I could use this time to think and discover what I’m going to in the future. And the search was fruitless, I got frustrated and, instead of taking this as a signal to turn to another solution, I only tried to dig deeper. I now know that this method isn’t very efficient.
People who do know their life purpose though, should continue pursuing their passion and dedicating a large part of their time developing that interest. However, the rest of us who are a little more confused and a little less clear about our future should not feel bad about our situation.
Soul(Film). Directed by Pete Docter, performances by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2020.