‘Soul’ Is the Movie We All Need As We Close Out 2020 — and Learn to Live in the In-Between

© 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

MY FAMILY CAPPED off Christmas this year with Soul, Pixar's latest computer-animated gem. In it, Joe Gardner, a struggling jazz pianist and middle school band teacher, falls into a manhole and into the afterlife just as he's approaching his big break. For most of the movie, he fights to return to the living to realize his dream of becoming a successful musician. He makes it back just in time for his debut with a famed jazz ensemble, performs brilliantly, and yet, when the set ends and he steps out of the club, he is visibly disappointed. "I thought I'd feel different," he admits.


Soul is marketed as a children's movie, but it's really an elegant examination of the existential dread we as adults all face at some point. Soul's lesson isn't that we shouldn't chase our dreams, or that ambition is futile, though the writers could have worked to more carefully distinguish this. Rather, it's that dreams alone cannot fulfill us; we are shaped and nurtured by the in-between.

In other words, living a worthy life, Soul reinforces, is as much about appreciating the small moments of discovery and humanity as it is about reaching the big milestones we celebrate in society.

As I watched Joe wrestle with this lesson, I was struck by how much it resonates in 2020, a year that will stain future history books with its disappointment and loss. Though Soul is set in a bustling, COVID-free New York City, Joe's yearning for success reminded me of all the dreams that each of us has had to pause or give up in 2020 because of the pandemic. How often have we called 2020 a throwaway year, counted down its months, wished for what's to come?

And what if, when we fill our coffee-break rooms again, and weddings and graduations resume, and we bump shoulders on a crowded street, we look around and say "That's it?" What if it doesn't make us feel the way we expect it to? What if we're disappointed?

Like Joe, I've spent much of my life chasing dreams, professionally and personally. Many have come true, some are on hold because of COVID, and precious others I continue to wait for, impatiently at times. It's human nature to desire, to strive, and indeed that is what fuels the greatest of achievements. But we don't achieve anything in a silo: Life is a symphony of people, moments, emotions and shared experiences, both good and bad. As Orson Welles once said, "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story."

In a beautiful montage towards the end of Soul, Joe realizes that his razor-focus on becoming a successful professional musician has blinded him to the richness of everyday life. He traces the memories that fill his soul: the mentorship of his late father, also a musician; the treasured time spent with his critical but well-meaning mother; the intoxicating sights and smells of his hometown.

I hope that 2021 will bring recovery and healing to our beloved Houston community. But I also hope that in in the new year, we will not sit in expectation for our happy ending, but rather take in the small joys and remember the ways in which 2020 shaped us. My New Year's resolution this year is simple: I intend to live as if the in-between is as important as whatever the end of the pandemic will gift us, as important as my own unrealized dreams coming true. I hope you will join me.

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