The Philosophical Undertakings of Disney’s Soul
How finding your spark does not equate to finding your purpose in life.
What is the meaning of life? What is our purpose in this world? Is life truly meaningless? These are the questions that run through Pixar’s animated movie Soul (2020) as it tries to offer a philosophical yet entertaining reflection on what it means to be human. Soul introduces us to Joe Gardner, a middle school music teacher, who seeks to reunite his soul and his body after they are accidentally separated just as he gets his big break as a jazz pianist. The key theme of Soul as it relates to the existential question of life’s meaning is that perhaps there is no true purpose of life, but rather it is the small moments that add up to give us meaning.
Joe Gardner’s character encapsulates quite accurately the mindset of the Average Joe when it comes to the meaning of life in our contemporary world, which is that every human being has to have a purpose in order to make their life meaningful. As societies became secular and church and state were separated, we began to see what is known as the “death of God”, meaning that we no longer had God as the centre of gravity holding us together. According to the German philosopher Nietzche, “man would rather have the void for purpose than be void of purpose”. Humans crave meaning, and if they are not given it, they may take extreme action trying to find it in a world they otherwise believe to be meaningless. When modern society could no longer find meaning through religion, they tried to grasp onto the idea of finding purpose in anything and everything- family, money, power, love, jobs, and hobbies, just to name a few. Even as young children, we are constantly bombarded with questions such as “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, implying that there has to be a definitive path towards our one true purpose.
Similarly, Joe Gardner spends his days in a meaningless rut as a music teacher as he aims to one day fulfil his dream of becoming a professional jazz musician. He is convinced by the idea that his “spark” is playing the piano, and that it is what he was assigned to do. While going through an exhibit of his life in the Great Before, he sees himself doing regular things like watching TV, rapping with his childhood friends, and sitting alone at a restaurant table. As he relives the moments of failure and rejections in his life and finally, sees himself on his deathbed, he concludes that his life had been meaningless and that he needs to return back to Earth because he simply cannot accept this outcome.
This scene made me reflect on my own life- would I consider my life to be meaningless if I were to watch a playback of it right now?
When Joe’s soul returns to Earth and he is finally able to play his dream gig alongside the legendary Jazz musician, he is seen standing outside the concert hall after a successful show asking, “What happens next?”. After being told they come back the next day and just play again, he responds, “I’ve been waiting for this day my entire life. I thought I’d feel different.”
There have been many instances in my own life where I have been so fixated on trying to get somewhere that I forget to live in the moment and don’t appreciate where I am, but once that moment comes and goes, I realize that just like Joe I feel no different and no more satisfied with life than I was before. In my opinion, this particular scene in the movie was the most gut-wrenching realization for both Joe and the audience that we mistakenly believe that we have some grand purpose in life, and that we were brought to this world for that sole reason and it is what we’re meant to do. However, Soul looks at the meaning of life through a different lens- humans are not meant to follow one predetermined trajectory and we don’t need some big objective to achieve. Instead, the purpose of life is to find our “spark”- the things that inspire us, bring us joy, and make us want to live. At the end of the movie, Joe finally realizes that music is something that sparks joy for him, but it is not the only thing.
We don’t have to travel to outerspace or find the cure to cancer or live in a mansion to consider our lives to be meaningful. Not achieving the social constructs that define success does not mean that we cannot be happy, nor does it mean that we have resorted to mediocrity. In fact, I think that by perpetuating the idea that we are only meant to do one thing in life sets ourselves up for failure, because if we are not able to achieve it then life automatically ends up feeling meaningless. Going back to my earlier question on how I would feel if I were to walk through an exhibit of my life the way Joe did, instead of looking upon my life as “meaningless” just because I didn’t achieve the goals that I set out for myself, I would reminisce over the moments where life truly felt like living, and that is something I realized only after I got to the end of the film.
Soul was an excellent reminder that there is nothing wrong with “regular old living” and that our purpose in life is not a singular, definitive thing. What is the meaning of life then, if we don’t have a purpose? I believe that it seems to be about feeling things and experiencing those sparks of joy whenever we can. It’s about the euphoria you feel when you listen to your favourite music, or the way the sand feels when it touches your feet, or the sensation of a warm shower after a tiring day. It’s also about the more complex emotions we feel on a daily basis, the relationships we form, and even helping someone else find their spark. Too often we place a heavy emphasis on finding the meaning in life, when really, life is already full of moments that make it meaningful. If there’s anything that I took away from Soul, it’s that if life is a rollercoaster, then don’t forget to enjoy the ride