Over the past weekend, I met up with a few former colleagues in education. One individual asked if I wanted to watch “Inside Out.” I had seen the trailer a few weeks ago but found it to be very abstract. I shrugged it off and ridiculed him for wanting to watch a kid’s film. I ended up serving myself a bit of humble pie when curiosity the cat struck and I ended up watching it by myself. In fact, I liked the film a lot and wanted to review it and share some thoughts on themes within Islamic Education parents, teachers and students can all learn from.
If you haven’t seen the film but plan on seeing it, then do not read further.
General Plot Line – The story revolves around a girl named Riley who grew up in Minnesota. Her parents moved to San Francisco and she is undergoing challenges to adjusting to her new environment, school and friends. Most of the movie and its characters are played out in Riley’s head in the form of her 5 core emotions anthropomorphized – Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear. Joy is played by Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation). She is upbeat and is also trying to stop Sadness, played by Phyllis Smith (The Office). Interestingly, Disgust is played by Mindy Kaling (The Office and The Mindy Project). Anger and Fear play a supportive role in the film. The film examines the complexity of human emotions and how the struggle between Joy and Sadness leads to a “soul-searching” mission where both attempt to find their way back to Riley’s active thoughts. The movie argues for a reevaluation of how we manage our own emotions, with particular emphasis on children and teenagers. For an in depth review on whether the movie is appropriate or not for your child, read here.
Don’t Suppress Emotions To have emotions is to be human. Culture, society and religion play important roles in defining how we view emotions and act upon them. I’ve seen many instances where emotions are viewed as burdensome. When we don’t teach children at an early age how to handle their emotions and their reactions, the combinations for future problems are compounded. Importantly, negative emotions are not necessarily bad. In fact, negative emotions are critical to development. The key is knowing how to handle these emotions and its reactions. As a result, people build up tolerance, resilience and self-esteem. Inside Out teaches parents or teachers to handle one’s emotions, as well as the outward reactions of others in a healthy way. Joy and Sadness were in constant struggle. Joy tried to suppress Sadness. The over-positive reactions that glossed over wounds that needed healing ended up festering and harming Riley. In the end, by allowing Sadness to overtake her mind, Riley ends up reviving her other values, as represented by “islands,” (truth/honesty, family, friendship, silliness etc). Islam never asks one to suppress emotions. It only asks us to manage our emotions in a healthy manner. When one loses a loved one, it’s okay to be sad. But screaming, shouting, inflicting harm on oneself, or cursing the divine are not appropriate methods to deal with sadness. The feeling of success should not lead to arrogance or demeaning others. It should be met with humility. Additionally, many Muslims are taught that self-denial and humiliation leads to humility. False. It leads to depression, fear, low self esteem and even propels people to self-hate while secretly hoping to get that attention and admiration they failed to get and enjoy for themselves in healthy doses.
Reactions – How do we deal with people’s emotions? It’s difficult. Riley’s parents were extremely tolerant of Riley when she came home after an attempt to run from home was short-lived. Most parents would have exploded. Most parents would put up a strong front to show strength. “If you want to leave? Leave!” Haven’t you heard of young men and women who are stressed, confused, and victims of emotional suppression only to be further alienated when their families disown them? Each person should take responsibility for their own emotional wellbeing. But for parents and teachers, our reaction should be measured. Inside Out never discloses if Riley’s parents found out the extent of Riley’s plans to run away. They call up the school and are furious to find that Riley’s teacher did not seen her all day. On the outside, they feel betrayed that Riley didn’t actually go to school. But deep down, when they realize that Riley was struggling with coping with her existence, her absence from school becomes a distant and inconvenient infraction. Never blow up at your kids on every mistake they make. Set boundaries on 1 or 2 cardinal rules they should always stay true to. If you always explode over every mistake they make, not only will the fear you for wrong reasons, they will also learn to deceive you. Once they care less about your emotions, they will openly rebel and show contempt for everything you stand for.
End Goal – There was a girl who once cheated on a test because she was afraid of disappointing her mother. In fact, it was a Qur’an test. As outrageous at is it is for someone to cheat on a Qur’an exam, I am positive that it was not done with malice or contempt for the Qur’an; rather, it was out of intense fear of her parent’s wrath. For her, good grades translates into parental joy. And if she failed, her parents would say that she is a disobedient daughter. But in her attempt to make them happy, she not only put a dent in her own relationship with the divine, she forgot that she was ultimately disappointing herself. How we react to teenagers’ behaviors is critical to their upbringing. Parents think that if they don’t set high expectations, kids will slack. It is true to a sense. But after one’s parents are long gone, whose standards will these young adults live up to? Ultimately, they should live up a higher standard, namely, al-ikhlas (sincerity).
Memories & Dawah – Riley’s memories and moments are portrayed as orbs of various colors depending on the mood/emotion associated with it. Yellow is for happiness, while cool blue is sadness. Anger is red. Green is disgust and lavender is fear. Riley’s positive and happy childhood is shown. Most of her memories are yellow. Her memory orbs are all stored in her mental labyrinth. They are tucked away and accessed at will. I couldn’t help but rethink of how our experiences and memories shape our personalities. Are our teens memory orbs towards Islam and family relations yellow, blue, green, lavender or red? How many times have a bad experience tied to a religious matter caused one to dislike religion? This perception really puts the brakes on the “Train of Correction.” People are so focused these days on calling out sisters or brothers for infractions without realizing how they deliver their advice or dawah. Next time when you want to correct someone, stop wondering on why they are disobedient and non-religious. But because you don’t access their memories, exercise extra caution when you bring up these issues.
Creative Imagination – It’s very smart when Joy and Sadness try to jump on Riley’s “Train of Thought” in an attempt to get back into her active thought processes. On their way, they navigate through the land of imagination, abstract thought and subconscious only to realize how convoluted and intricate these mental states can be. In the same way, our kids need to have creative license to explore their own imagination. Drilling into them the need to get good grades, being obedient and them unwinding on video games, social media and frivolous things really stunt our teenager’s imaginative growth. How dangerous is it that parents teach their kids to associate happiness and joy with grades, specific careers or behaviors? What imagination is left? What happens when a kid fails? They go into depression. Because Riley has a healthy dose of outside play, building friendships, family memories and silliness, she was able to snap out of her angry phase. But, for us, how can we help our kids develop good imagination? Involve them in different experiences. Stop focusing on shaping their experiences through your decades of experience. Let them explore, learn and even make mistakes.
Final Thoughts – Overall, Inside Out is a terrific movie. The only drawback to this movie is a little abstract for kids. But don’t stop yourself from showing it to your kids. Also, don’t be stingy with the tissues. It’s an emotional movie as it really resonates with our own memories. We all see a bit of Riley in ourselves. That’s what makes this movie so powerful and beautiful. I highly recommend it.