Disney Pixar’s latest feature film, Soul, follows the unassuming life of Joe Gardner. ( Caution, if you haven’t already seen the movie this blog includes spoilers.) He is a middle school music teacher with dreams of making it big. The character’s angst to accomplish his life’s dream drew me in as I sat and thought of my own unfinished goals. Joe’s desperation to become a successful Jazz performer highlights humanity’s struggle with meaning and purpose. While the movie Soul may not be a biblical guide to life, it echoes biblical principles without even knowing it.
Joe Gardner’s search for purpose and fulfillment is reminiscent of the book of Ecclesiastes. After finally getting his big break our protagonist falls down a manhole and finds himself climbing the stairs to the “great beyond.” Eventually, he finds his way back to his body and plays the gig that is supposed to give him the fulfillment he has always hoped for. Yet, once he tastes victory, he finds that it’s not so sweet.
The author of Ecclesiastes was also searching for meaning and fulfillment. He considers finding purpose through wisdom, work, nature, pleasure, and all the like. He speaks of the weariness of chasing meaning in chapter 1:7-8.
“All the streams flow into the sea, but the sea is not full, and to the place where the streams flow, there they will flow again. All this monotony is tiresome; no one can bear to describe it. The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear ever content with hearing.”
As Joe contemplates his lack of satisfaction, a seasoned jazz player offers her wisdom in the form of a parable. She says, “I heard this story about a fish, he swims up to an older fish and says: “I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.” “The ocean?” the older fish says, “that’s what you’re in right now.” “This”, says the young fish, “this is water. What I want is the ocean!”
This story hit home for me. Much like Joe Gardner, I sometimes feel as if life is passing me by. Like I’ve been swimming around in water only to miss the majesty of the ocean. Although I have accomplished much, it seems I have an insatiable yearning for more. I can see the beauty of my kids, my husband, and the ministry God has entrusted to me and I wonder how I can feel such desperation while surrounded by so many blessings.
After Joe receives a dose of reality, he takes inventory of his life through a different lens. What he finds among the mundane are moments of beauty, moments of rest, and moments of awe. While some criticize that this message seems to be a reduction of meaning and purpose wrapped up in a “live your best life” gift card, for me it was a poignant reminder to stop and smell the roses.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes also takes inventory of his life and derives a similar thought:
“I have concluded that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to enjoy themselves as long as they live, and also that everyone should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all his toil, for these things are a gift from God.” Ecclesiastes 3:12-13
At first glance, the book of Ecclesiastes seems to be a bleak reminder of futility until we realize that mankind finds its hope in God alone. And it is God who wraps up beautiful gifts of joy in the simplicity of life.
In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Joe indulges his newfound joy for simplicity by taking in those famously fun helicopter seeds. As he sits staring up at the maple trees, he is immersed by a horde of these whirly things showering down on him. He leans back and his eyes light up with wonder. I remember the first time my kids discovered these helicopter seeds. We climbed back up the stairs and got as high as we could to watch them spin and spin all the way to the ground. My kids squealed with delight as we went up and down the stairs throwing these seeds into the air while standing in awe of God’s creation.
These are the little moments that Soul reminded me to think of in the midst of despair. This was my spiritual takeaway-remembering and reflecting. I have written before on the beauty of remembrance and its role in the Bible. We find throughout scripture that God is big on remembering things, the good and the bad. Feasts like the Passover or our observance of communion help keep us tethered to God’s story, to beauty, to sorrow, and to hopefulness.
Joe Gardner walked around with that helicopter seed in his pocket as a reminder to enjoy the little things. Maybe you are like me and feel that life has fallen into a cycle of futility. I want to suggest to you to go find your own helicopter seed in life. Find the glimmers of joy and keep them in your pocket, throw them up into the air and watch them in awe. I am a witness that God will renew your strength and restore to you the joy of his salvation. (Psalm 51:12)