Living life prepared to die: a discussion about Soul and other media
Updated: May 2, 2021
(Warning: this article may contain spoilers.)
"Soul" holds a special place in my heart because it was one of the last movies that my mum watched before she passed on.
The film follows Joe Gardner, a middle-school band teacher, who's fervently passionate about jazz and consumed by his dream of becoming a professional jazz musician. Just as he gets the career opportunity of a lifetime, he makes a misstep and, through a series of events and choices, is eventually transported to The Great Before - a place where new souls get their personalities, idiosyncrasies and interests before they are born into Earth.
Aside from Soul going down in history as the Pixar's first movie with an African-American main character, there are many interesting theoretical concepts that the film explores such as 'The Great Before and The Great Beyond' and personality construction beginning before birth.
But we won't be discussing any of those. Instead, here are some of the things I learned about life from this movie:
The success of a well-led life is measured by the preparedness to die
"I'm just afraid that if I died today, my life would have amounted to nothing." -- Joe Gardner
In the movie, the character Joe Gardner dies but isn't ready to move on to The Great Beyond and tries all sorts of ways to return to the world of the living so that he can play at the jazz gig he had just been offered.
He isn't ready to die because he had spent the majority of his time in anticipation of something that eluded him and neglected to find beauty in everyday life.
Eventually, he is able to re-discover the simple joys of living by seeing things through the perspective of a soul that was new to life on Earth. This helps him to arrive at the end of his character arc where he found peace with himself and felt ready to accept death.
Unknown artist featured at Singapore Art Museum (2014) (if anyone knows who the artist is, please contact me)
A good question to ask yourself for a start: "If you were to die right now, would you feel prepared for it?" Can you say with a reasonable amount of certainty that you have no regrets, that you have known love - you have loved your life, loved yourself, and shown love to the people you cherish - and that you are at peace with yourself?
What makes people prepared to die?
1. Knowing that they have lived life to the fullest
Living a full life involves the setting and pursuit of both external goals and internal goals and enjoying the process that takes us there.
'External goals' refer to ambitions that we typically do not have full control of. They are usually clearly quantifiable and outwardly recognised:
Getting 1st place in a competition
Securing a job promotion
Buying a dream house
Being present for your children's graduation
'Internal goals' refer to ambitions that we have complete control over. However, they are usually hard to define and easily neglected:
Performing at your best during each match
Enjoying what you do for a living
Being satisfied with your home
Being supportive of your children's pursuits
Having external goals are important. However, we need to be aware that external goals can also set us up for disappointment because there are many factors outside of our control that influences the outcome.
Hence, having internal goals and making a conscious effort to achieve them is an essential step to living a fulfilling life.
2. Knowing that they have a plan in place
In September 2020, Steven Petrow wrote an article for The Washington Post declaring that his preparedness to die - not because of a terminal illness or COVID-19, but rather, due to the pandemic, he became motivated to complete most of the necessary steps for end-of-life planning.
Having a plan reduces the uncertainty that the future brings and this can help people to feel less anxious. This can come in the form of making a will, creating a trust fund for your children and/or making videos on life lessons your children to watch as they grow up.
If you are not ready to accept death, search for the reasons. It may be terrifying to confront them. But by being aware of the things holding you back, you can make a conscious effort to free yourself from these burdens.
The fine line between chasing your dreams and running in the rat race
The movie defines "lost souls" as people who are so obsessed by something that they become disconnected from life. Lost souls are then transformed into ugly, dark, stooping figures that are slaves to a crazed longing for something that they do not have.
This was comically depicted by a hedge fund manager being one of these lost souls, only managing to break out of the routine when he was able to observe himself from a third party's perspective and coming to the realisation that this was not the life he wanted to lead.
The rat race starts when a person sets goals pitting himself/herself against a perceived societal standard (that usually involves wealth and social status). The rat race cannot end because there is no limit to the competition - there will always be someone richer than you and 'better' than you.
I shall end this section with "Happiness" by Steve Cutts - a witty satire about people's relentless quest for happiness and fulfilment and how companies with profit-making agenda take advantage of our weaknesses to sell us product after product. But no matter how much wealth and status you accumulate, you will never be exempt from things like the law (in the film) and death.
Happiness (2017) by Steve Cutts; I love how the train scene depicts the rats waiting to board a train that is labelled as "going nowhere"
Celebrate the process (not just the end-point)
In Soul, 22 (a character) asks a barber how he ended up in his job. The barber recounts that he had always dreamt of being a veterinarian but due to family and financial circumstances, he went to barber school instead.
He then goes on to correct 22's misconception - people who don't get to live their dreams aren't unnecessarily unhappy people. In fact, he finds his job very fulfilling because he gets to meet interesting people and that he gets to make them look and feel good about themselves. 22 eventually realises that life is not solely about finding and achieving your purpose and learns to enjoy the process and where life takes her.
Each day, we strive to move from one point to another:
From unemployed to employed;
To get a desired job role;
To save enough money to buy something we believe will improve our lives and make us happy.
We often celebrate the end-point but lament the process. But this is precisely what makes some people sad and regretful when they are diagnosed with a terminal illness:
Feeling that they will never accomplish the goals that they had spent so much time trying to achieve;
Regretting that all the opportunities of happiness that they have given up in the pursuit of their ambition;
Feeling that they have not lived life to the fullest.
We have already established that ambition is important (a 100% hedonistic lifestyle has its own problems). Achieving a good balance involves learning how to live your life keeping the intention to achieve your goals but also simultaneously enjoying the process.
Many people live life as though they have forever - that death only happens to the unhealthy and the aged. When we take the gift of life for granted, we neglect to appreciate what is of great importance (but is always there) in pursuit of things that we do not have.
Still in One Piece by Johnson Tsang
It is only when death is imminent and the non-essential complexities are stripped away, that we remember what matters the most and how we failed to fully appreciate it in the time that we had.
To summarise the main points of this article on how to live well:
Use the question "if you were to die right now, would you feel prepared for it?" to guide internal and external goal-setting
Avoid goals that pit yourself against a perceived societal standard
Learning how to keep the intention of achieving your goals while simultaneously enjoying the process
(Soul is available on Disney+.)