What Bing Bong Taught Me About Life

Pixar’s Inside Out was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on November 3rd.  It doesn’t matter that I’ve already seen it twice in the theaters, at the top of my list for yesterday was to head down to Nebraska Furniture Mart and cash in on an in-store credit to pick it up.  Later that night, after school lunches had been packed and a batch of chocolate chip cookies had cooled enough to eat, the kids and I settled in on our couch to watch the movie.  Having now seen it multiple times, I’m familiar with the plot:  11 year old Riley Andersen’s life is turned upside down as her family moves cross country from Minnesota to San Francisco.  Riley’s emotions – anthropomorphized as Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness – help guide her through this life-changing event from their “headquarters” inside Riley’s mind.  However, things take a turn for the worse when Joy and Sadness find themselves flung into the outer reaches of Riley’s mind, leaving Fear, Disgust, and Anger as the only emotions for Riley to express.

While the interaction between the various emotions is hilarious, the character that really strikes a chord with me is Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from when she was young.  Portrayed as a large, helpful, cotton candy/elephant/cat hybrid, he encounters Joy and Sadness in the Long Term Memory area of Riley’s mind.  As Riley grew up, she outgrew and forgot about Bing Bong.  When Joy and Sadness happen upon him, he is spending his time on the outskirts of Riley’s mind, collecting memories of themselves together in happier times.  For those of you that haven’t seen the movie, I won’t provide any spoilers, but suffice to say Bing Bong plays a pivotal role in Inside Out.

“Who’s your friend that likes to play?”

Now, you may be thinking, “Bing Bong, a giant pink elephant/cat thing that cries candy instead of tears…what exactly does he have to do with me?” Let me unpack it.  At his core, Bing Bong struggled with the tension between joy and sadness (the feelings, not necessarily their characterizations.)  We meet him pining for days when he and Riley went on adventures and dreaming of the big one when he’d take her to the moon.  Yet, those same feelings were juxtaposed against his sense of loneliness and abandonment.  You can see where this is going.  How often do we see that same tension in our own lives?  The inextricable dichotomy between joy and sadness? It’s that very tension that causes me to feel uneasy at hospitals and airports.  At both of those places, someone is always coming and someone is always going…literally and figuratively.  Birth, death.  Arrival, departure.  Joy, sadness…all beautifully and tragically intertwined.

“Take her to the moon for me, okay?”

On a lesser scale, I felt this tension deeply last month when our family went on vacation to Disney World.  The overwhelming excitement we felt as our Disney Magical Express motor coach rumbled down I-4 towards our resort; the sense of novelty we experienced in our first meal that afternoon at the food court…the feelings were overwhelming with wonder and the optimism of a family free from the doldrums of work and school.  Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.  The once happy feelings gave way to sadness as we shuffled underneath the “See ya’ real soon!” sign for the last time at the Magic Kingdom.  If that was bad, you should have seen the ride back from the resort to the airport (they don’t nickname that ride the “Tragical Express” for nothing!)

I say that last part tongue in cheek, but it serves to drive the point home; we can’t experience joy in our lives without also experiencing the pain of sadness.  They aren’t opposing forces like good and evil; rather, they are complementary in the value they bring to our lives.  What value does the exhilaration of the mountaintop bring if one did not have to toil in the valley?  Or thought another way, every year, millions of families make the decision to purchase or adopt a pet, knowing full well that the likelihood they will outlive said pet is 99.99%. Yet, in spite of that inevitable pain, they still make that decision to bring that animal into their lives, love it, and ultimately grieve its death. Why do we choose to put ourselves through the emotional wringer like that? Because we can’t take the good without the bad.  The joys we experience in life (love, relationships, kids, a fulfilling career) inherently carry the probability of sadness within them (broken relationships, loss, and death.)  Does that mean we never love?  Or never adopt stray dogs?  Absolutely not!  To experience the full range of emotions is what makes us human.  The real challenge is to go into each and every situation with our eyes and hearts open, knowing there is a time for joy, a time for sadness, for delighting in the good, and mourning in loss.

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