Surrounded by abounding prosperity, we are constantly told to “follow our passions,” to “look deep inside ourselves,” to “find our calling,” to “do what we love and love what we do.” And why shouldn’t we? Freedom is expanding. Opportunity is everywhere.
Having mostly escaped the material deprivation of human history, our attentions have quite happily turned toward the meaning of our work, and for those resistant to the competing allure of materialism, it is a welcome shift, to be sure. Yet without the proper moral imagination, the syrupy mantras of modern “meaning makers” can quickly lead us to the same dead ends of self-focus and decadence.
What, we ask, is our work ultimately for?
That is a question at the heart of Soul, Pixar’s latest entry in its growing subgenre of suitably sweet, artistic odes to the human spirit. From the pop psychology of Inside Out to the vocational introspection of Coco, the studio has never been shy about asking the bigger questions. With Soul, it does much of the same, telling a compelling story that teases meaningful insights about work and calling while challenging our current cultural aversion to “regular old living.”
The film centers on the life of Joe Gardner, a middle-aged music teacher and aspiring jazz pianist, who has spent the bulk of his life “pursuing his dream” with limited success. Or so he thinks.
Warning: This section contains spoilers.
When offered the opportunity to perform with Dorothea Williams, a renowned saxophone player, Joe sees an opportunity to escape the confines of the classroom — an easy exit to “meaning” and “purpose,” a satisfying payoff after years of toil and “dead-end gigging,” as his mother calls it. “I would die a happy man if I could perform with Dorothea Williams,” Joe says. As plot would demand, Joe promptly dies thereafter, accidentally slipping into a manhole during his fit of jubilation.
Sent immediately into The Great Beyond, Joe finds his disembodied soul set on a gloomy escalator to a blinding light — a new road to nothingness. Having finally found his inspiration to live, Joe resists such a fate, fighting to get back to his body by outwitting a strange series of afterlife rules and regulations. Partnering up with a wandering soul named 22, Joe cheats the system and sneaks back to Earth, albeit in an alternate, temporary form.
Upon Joe’s return, it becomes clear that death has done little to change his attitudes and motivations. Having found his “second chance,” Joe is still pursuing “vocational prize” as purpose, becoming ever-more more obsessed with his narrow vision of the good life — focused on notoriety, fame, security, “doing what he loves,” “getting the gig,” and playing with the likes of Dorothea Williams. Through it all, we see hints of the meaning he’s brought to others — most notably, a former student named Curley (now Williams’ drummer) and a current student named Connie (a trombone virtuoso).
But all Joe sees is that prize. All Joe sees is himself.
By allowing his “passion” to reign supreme, he has created an altar unto “career” itself, and, with it, a false confidence that “meaning” and “purpose” are readily waiting on the other side. “I’m due,” Joe says, immediately after dying. “I’m overdue. … I’m not dying today, not when my life just started.”
When 22 points him to flashbacks of his life thus far, including time spent with his late father and various students, Joe cringes with despair, thinking only of his failures. “My life was meaningless,” he says. Later, 22 contemplates her own “spark” for life, exuding innocence, joy, and wonder. “Maybe sky-watching can be my spark,” she says. “Or walking! I’m really good at walking.” Joe replies, again, with muted cynicism: “Those really aren’t purposes, 22. That’s just regular old living.”
It isn’t until a conversation with his barber, Dez, that the edifice begins to crack. Joe brags that Dez was “born to be a barber,” celebrating his talent. Yet Dez resists the compliment, noting that he originally wanted to be a veterinarian. After his daughter got sick, Dez explains, he was pressed to ditch those plans and pursue a different path to support his family.
“Well that’s too bad you’re stuck as a barber, and now you’re unhappy,” says Joe (voiced by 22).
“Woah! Slow your roll there, Joe,” Dez fires back. “I’m happy as a clam, my man. Not everyone can be Charles Drew inventing blood transfusions.”
The real secret, Dez explains, is realizing who and what you’re working for. Are you making it all about yourself — your “needs,” your “desires,” your “dreams” — or are you using your gift to serve those around you? This is where real meaning and joy is found.
“That’s the magic of the chair,” Dez continues. “That’s why I love this job. I get to meet interesting folks like you, make them happy, and make them handsome. … I may not have invented blood transfusions, but I am saving lives.”
Joe is noticeably moved, and from here, the revelation begins to expand, concluding with his big gig with Dorothea Williams. The show is a rousing success, and even though Joe earns a spot in her esteemed quartet, he is not filled with the sense of meaning he long expected. “I’ve been waiting on this day for my entire life,” Joe says. “I thought I’d feel different.”
Joe walks home to his apartment and sits alone at his piano. He puts his fingers to the keys, and reflects on his life, realizing that for all his previous griping about his unfulfilled “dreams,” the meaning was always there, from the moment he was born to the first time he ever laid hands on a piano. He sees new meaning in mundane moments with his family – the love of his mother, the friendship of his father. He awakens to the wonder of creation, whether experienced through childhood bike rides, walks on seashores at sunset, or the flavors in a simple slice of pecan pie. He imagines the New York City subway as a place of peace, a subtle homage to the hum-drum beauty of civilization.
But perhaps most profoundly, he realizes his true calling as a musician. Reminded of key moments with his father and his students, Joe realizes that Dez was right: His talent for music was always meant to be a gift for others, not a tool for his own status and self-indulgence.
What he once mocked as “regular old living” was now revealed to have a divine purpose all of its own. He simply needed the faith to see it, and the humility to embrace it.
To be clear, if treated as a grounding cosmology, Soul is predictably problematic. There is no God in Joe Gardner’s New York City, and its afterlife consists not of eternal fellowship with a loving Creator King, but of a dark and dreary stairway to oblivion, maintained and micro-managed by morally ambivalent bureaucrats and paper-pushers. From a particular point of view, one can easily interpret these same central themes as prompters toward a vacuous New Age mysticism of sorts.
But at plenty of points throughout, the film challenges our predominant cultural assumptions in ways that are rather profound. When paired with a better anthropology and an others-oriented philosophy of life, Christians can find plenty of ways to fruitfully fill in the blanks and adjust our cultural imaginations, in turn.
Indeed, for Christians, Joe’s meaning only magnifies: We are not only working to love and serve our neighbors but, by doing so, we are also honoring and glorifying God and redeeming the created order. Every thing we put our hands to, every act of service we indulge, every need we meet, every mundane trade and exchange we make, is transforming the economic and social order and “knitting together the family of humankind.”
As Dez aptly demonstrates, it is here where we find meaning. And as Joe would later learn, any outside attempts to inject our “callings” with such purpose are utterly futile in the end.
As Lester DeKoster explains in his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life:
All of our efforts to endow our lives with meaning are apt to come up short and disappointing. Why? Because all our passion to fill the meaning-vacuum through multiplied activity in the home, the church, the community, or whatever stumbles over that big block of every week’s time we have to spend on the seeming meaninglessness of the job. The spare-time charities cannot tip the scales. Redoubling our efforts only obscures the goal.
We are sometimes advised to try giving meaning to our work (instead of finding it there) by thinking of the job in religious terms such as calling or vocation. What seems at first like a helpful perspective, however, deals with work as if from the outside. We find ourselves still trying to endow our own work with meaning. We are trying to find the content in the label, without real success. The meaning we seek has to be in work itself.
The beautiful paradox of the Christian life is that even when we find ourselves in “cog-like” work environments — for Joe, the middle school classroom — God has oriented our hands toward both material provision and blessing, as well as transcendent purpose and beauty. God is with us in our work, whether we realize it or not.
As we enjoy the fruits of freedom, we will continue to be bombarded by various modes of “meaning making” and “find your passion” sloganeering. Like Joe, we would do well to reject such distractions, dying to the whims of self-indulgence and recognizing that such fruits are far better enjoyed if we locate meaning where it already exists. God put it there for a reason.