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Inside Out: Heart

Our hearts define who we are. That’s why outside-in change doesn’t work so well. Yet we can easily fool ourselves about who we really are. You’ve seen the guy who thinks he’s really cool when he’s not? Yeah, well sometimes, we’re the guy. Worse, we may not see how we do the same selfishness, backstabbing, and letting others down that we’re quick to call out in those around us. But when a film takes us to new places and new people (real or imaginary) and plays out life before us, we’re more likely to get it: We see the things that people do and, if we’re watching closely, we realize what we ourselves are doing — or not doing. If we reach in to let it grab us deeply, a film can pull our hearts toward things that really are cool, and it can push us away from things that may seem cool but really aren’t. We get better from the inside out.

Here’s how it works:

  • Love defines who we need to be. As sentimental as it may sound, all human good derives from the foundation of loving others: family, friends, acquaintances, people on the other side of the world. We won’t (and shouldn’t) love everything that everyone does, but we can still love them in spite of it, longing for and keeping the door open for restoration and reconciliation. Underneath this is a more fundamental foundation: loving goodness itself, which is what drives us to make better of ourselves and the world. If we are becoming who we need to be, it’s because we are learning how every little thing is (or is not) an act of love.
  • It’s the heart that matters. Love takes root in our hearts, and that’s where we grow to love others and to love goodness itself. If we love goodness, we’re naturally concerned about doing the right things — good things to do are the right things to do. It’s good to talk about doing the right things, but we can talk without doing. Of course it’s better to do the right things, but we can do the right things even though we don’t like doing them. The real thing is that, in any given area of our lives, we are not who we need to be until our hearts change, until we do and love doing the right things — not because it’s a rule or somebody said so, but because we ourselves truly love these things.
  • Hearts change best through transformative experience. Our hearts change when an experience drives home some striking emotional impact. We change for the better when the impact is of something that’s true and good. We may change merely upon having a thing told to us, but if so it’s really because our imaginations drive home its emotional impact. Yet there’s a problem: We can’t fully trust our hearts — we can feel something is the right thing when it’s really not. So, we also need to think seriously about things. But there’s another problem: Our minds are not fully trustworthy, either. We need our heads and our hearts working together, and we need rich and solid outside input to guide both our hearts and minds.
  • Film takes us where we can’t go. Transformative experience is what we need but we can’t — and if we’re smart we don’t want to — go everywhere that we could go and experience everything that we’d have to to get better in all the ways we need to. Film can vicariously take us to new places and bring us through experiences that can enrich our lives and transform us, and all the more so if we come to the theater open, ready, and expecting to come away changed. What we experience through film can spur us on to deeper thought and deeper feeling about what’s good and true and beautiful.
  • The biggest change may come from characters we don’t like. We may enjoy seeing ourselves in likeable characters in a film — and it’s good to be drawn toward wonderful people that we long to be like. But we’re likely to be more deeply changed if we think about how we might be like the ugly characters in the film. It’s not whether we are like them, but how much we are like them. A little bit? A lot? If we allow ourselves to see reflections of our own ugliness, we may be repulsed at what we find, which can push us toward getting better. Whether by being drawn toward characters’ goodness or pushed away by their badness, we want to see a clear picture of the true states of our hearts.
  • Moralistic, preachy films aim for the head, not the heart. Some films present quite clear and direct messages, aiming to be squeaky clean in their content. There’s a reason that such “clear and clean” films tend to miss the heart. Because they are crafted to lay direct moral obligations on us, they speak primarily to our heads, presenting issues in simplistic ways that ignore life’s complexity and nuance. So, it doesn’t seem real. To grab our hearts, the best films take us through something real, even complex and messy, wrestling with issues as tough as what we do in our real lives.

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