What Pixar’s “Soul” Taught 20-Year-Old Me

Photo by Angie Shenouda

By Angie Shenouda

** Warning: Spoilers ahead! **

“All the times I’ve been so close to getting to my dreams. – something always gets in the way.” – Joe Gardner, Pixar’s Soul 

If you’re anything like me, you’ve sometimes felt like the world has been playing a massive prank on you. These past few years I’ve been the dog and the universe has been the master, dangling bacon just above my nose, watching me salivate but never be satiated. As a child, I thought my dreams were impossible, but from 2018 through 2019 I slowly turned them into a reality. I could hardly believe it as everything was falling into place: I was set to take on the position of my dreams in 2020. Right as I was about to cross the finish line… BAM. The world shuts down, and everything I worked towards was snagged from my fingertips. I’m not the only victim of the universe’s trickery during the pandemic. And I know I’m not the only one who almost gave up on their dreams completely because of it. But on a cozy December night in 2020, I sat down to watch a film not knowing it would change my life.  

“I’m just afraid that if I died today, my life would have amounted to nothing.” …pretty heavy, right? One thing about Pixar’s Soul is that it is beautifully raw. This film wasn’t written with just a child audience in mind. It follows the life of Joe Gardener, a forty-something middle school band teacher with dreams of being a jazz pianist, but it tells the story of all of us on Earth in the desperate search for life’s meaning.

Everything in Joe Garner’s life is a blur to him except playing piano – he believes it to be his life’s “purpose.” He is constantly trying out for gigs in order to achieve his dream of being a jazz musician. After numerous rejections his entire life, he finally secures the gig of his dreams: to play a show with Dorothea Williams, a famous jazz musician he’s a fan of. But on his way home from the audition, he falls into an open manhole, and…dies. I didn’t read the movie’s synopsis beforehand, so honestly, this part of the movie shocked me. I saw myself in Joe; the pandemic felt like the manhole I fell into. 

Resisting death, Joe somehow ends up in “The Great Before,” which is the place where new souls are born and paired with mentors to prepare them for life on Earth. Part of that preparation includes finding the mentee’s “spark,” their reason for living. Joe believes piano to be his “spark.” He impersonates a mentor and is given mentee soul number 22. 22 has been in the Great Before for millions of years, resisting life. She hates the idea of living and doesn’t believe she has a “spark.” She loves causing chaos and taunting every mentor she is given (some of her notable mentors include Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Mother Theresa). She is intrigued when learning Joe’s true identity and witnessing his desperation to get back to his “pathetic life” on Earth. 

After many trials, towards the end of the movie Joe finally gets to play with Dorothea Williams. But there’s a problem – he doesn’t feel any different. The show is amazing, but he thought his life would change after achieving his dream, finally making him happy. But it didn’t. In the past I’ve achieved many “dreams”: dreams of losing “X” number of pounds, dreams of going to a concert, dreams of meeting a certain celebrity, thinking I’d finally be “happy” afterward. But every single time nothing happens, so I move on to the next dream. I’m never satiated. 

With the rise of hustle culture, many of us struggle with never being satisfied with what we have accomplished and never really living in the moment. There’s always another finish line we are running towards. Isn’t it tiring? Isn’t it exhausting constantly being so goal-motivated?

Below is my favorite quote from Soul that encapsulates this feeling: 

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.’”

Soul made me realize I had been living in an imaginary race with myself for so many years of my life. Nothing I accomplished was ever good enough to finally make me happy, and that’s because not one singular accomplishment will ever be good enough to do that. It takes “jazzing,” a term 22 coined in the movie, to make you truly experience life. I love the musical metaphor in the film: jazz is improvisation and going with the flow. If you are constantly blurring out the rest of your life and only focusing on your dream, are you truly living? 

We don’t have a specific “purpose” in life, whether that be playing piano, being a doctor, or being a writer. Our “spark” is our ability to eat pizza, to find beauty in the sunlight hitting leaves falling off of trees, to dance, and to enjoy listening to music. Our “spark” is our ability to live. For years I had practiced meditation using the Calm app. But it was the movie Soul that truly taught me the power of mindfulness, putting my life into perspective, and reminding me to take a break from my “dreams” and allow myself to fully live. 

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