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Recovering From the Grip of Productivity and Purpose

Writing by Amy Life. Illustration by Bethany Morton.

Enticing both visually and emotionally, Disney’s Soul seeks to question a deep attachment to productivity and purpose in life that shadows our existence and holds us back from true happiness. From a young age, we are taught that hard work and having a purpose is the golden ticket to a fulfilling life. Success is synonymous with wealth, productivity and talent. However, the idea of productivity has never felt more imposing than during the lockdowns of the past year where social media was flooded with ways to be productive despite it being a period of collective stress and sadness. Soul offers an alternative; by making existentialist philosophy accessible, it gives us hope of meaning in a meaningless existence.

Played out to the rich sounds of Jazz, the film takes us on a healing journey that begins with a familiar emphasis on having a purpose that will both shape and fulfil our existence. This journey ends with a healing message that the worth of our existence is not defined by any predetermined purpose but by the small, beautiful experiences that make up our lives. Joe Gardner, music teacher and aspiring Jazz artist, is the vessel through which we discover the pitfalls of focusing too heavily on a singular goal in life. Loveable, though flawed like all humans, Joe loses himself in his quest to fulfil what he takes to be his purpose. To him, purpose is a comfort, something to aim towards, and we sympathise when he dies inches away from the realisation of his goal. It is soon after this that we are introduced to 22, a ‘lost’ soul who has confounded the likes of Gandhi, Mother Theresa and Marie Antoinette with her lack of purpose. The friendship soon forged between these two souls is symbolic of the tug of war we feel between the comfort of purpose and finding the ability to exist meaningfully in each moment regardless of how conducive it is to achieving a goal. In the end, the latter wins and we are shown that 22 isn’t lost. Having a lack of purpose is not to be lost, but to be free to live, experience all emotions and take pleasure in the very nature of existence itself.

“A spark isn’t a soul’s purpose. You mentors and your passions, your purposes, your meanings of life - so basic.” - Jerry, Soul

Soul masterfully expounds the existentialist idea that our life is utterly devoid of meaning. We have no purpose, no essence except that which we create through our choices in life. As the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre put it, our existence precedes our essence. If this is the case, and I like to believe it is, then productivity and purpose is a myth that prevents us from living meaningfully and crafting our own narrative that is rooted in the simple joys of existence. It is these simple joys that appear to give 22 her spark and allow her to live. Soul also deals with the potential to lose ourselves in the obsessive pursuit of our goals, and interestingly it is not the love of a hobby that pulls these souls back to themselves, but rather the beautiful absurdity of life as portrayed by the free-spirited Moonwind. To me, this suggests that when we lose our way on the path to success it is perhaps because our idea of success is misguided. A fulfilled life is one of happiness, human connection and enjoyment of the magical, singular moments that are each ineffable in themselves but in their culmination equate to happiness. Being in nature, being with others and being authentic is the spark we are each given. That is lost in the capitalist venture of producing success in the same way we produce anything else - formulaic, packaged, more easily available to those who can buy it and when push comes to shove, incapable of producing pure happiness. Only by revelling in the beautiful absurdity of life do we regain our spark.

By recovering from our obsession with purpose and having meaning, we are liberated into existence in the present. Striving towards future success becomes a distant memory of the past. Collectively we remind ourselves that we are defined first and foremost by the fact of our existence and that our ability to experience a full range of human emotion connects us with each other. It is also worth noting that not only is success, purpose and productivity a tool of capitalist society - it is also inherently ableist. It places the value of each human on their ability to produce and create profit through their bodies and minds. In changing this narrative we can allow success to be personal, measured by ourselves and ourselves only.

Disney’s Soul provides an important healing message. This message is a universal one that, especially in this time of hardship and being trapped in our own thoughts, can help us slow down and find a different sort of meaning to our existence. If you want to escape the ‘productive lockdown’ trend (or monster) ripping through social media, Soul is the place to look. In helping us recover from the productive mindset, we are taught to enjoy life for what it is and are reminded that our purpose is simply to live fully in whatever way we desire - because we have no meaning, we just are.

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