Wrestling with questions of vocation? Watch the movie “Soul”

by | Jan 21, 2021 | Film, Pop Culture, Spirituality

Warning: This article contains spoilers


“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver 

This question echoed through my head as I watched Soul, Pixar’s latest film, which brings a little something for everyone: adorable proto-souls for the kids, humor for the adults, an existential crisis for the philosophy majors, and even a deep lesson on vocational discernment.

The question is one that confronts many of the main characters, framed around the concept of the “spark.” Joe Gardner, a middle school band teacher by day and aspiring jazz pianist by night, unexpectedly dies the day of his long-awaited breakthrough gig. In desperation to avoid the “Great Beyond” so he can return in time to perform, Joe instead finds himself in the “Great Before,” where impressionable little proto-souls are being prepared to begin life down on earth.

These unborn souls explore this space (also called the “You Seminar”) and receive their personality traits before being paired with a mentor to discover their spark, which completes a pass that shows the Great Before has certified them as ready for earthly life. Joe becomes the mentor for soul #22, who has spent centuries in the Great Before, frustrating many famous mentors who have tried unsuccessfully to help her discover that spark. Joe comes to see his goal as helping 22 to discover her purpose so she can be ready to go fulfill it on earth.

It is not too difficult for anyone wrestling with questions of discernment to relate to characters like 22; I certainly felt that way as I watched, and I was reminded of my own vocational discernment and endeavors to discover my “spark.” It was then that I first encountered the quote from Mary Oliver above. It was probably offered to me out of a spirit of encouragement, but I found it to be quite intimidating. It seemed like such a big question to answer. As a young college student, I found myself wondering what exactly I should be doing with this life I had been given. And, it prompted another question that the film also raises: what if I pick the wrong thing?

A particularly powerful scene that authentically addresses the real challenge of discernment takes place with Joe’s barber, Dez. Joe and 22 go to see Dez so he can fix a mostly self-inflicted disaster of a haircut. Joe thinks he has the concept of the spark all figured out: we are all born with something particular, a special purpose that we need to discover. Joe tells 22 that he’s sure Dez’s must have easily figured out his purpose. “Talk about having a spark; this guy was born to be a barber!”

But, during the haircut, 22 muses about this question of the spark, of vocation, giving voice to many of us who have struggled to discover our purpose. If people are born to do a particular thing, how do we figure that out? And, 22 asks the crucial question that had so worried me: “what if you pick up the wrong thing?” But, Joe and 22 are surprised to learn that Dez is not actually living what he thought was his original dream. Dez had first wanted to be a veterinarian, but after getting out of the Navy and caring for a sick daughter, barber school was a less expensive option. 22 tells Dez that she’s so sorry he’s stuck in the wrong job and missing out on his dream. Dez, though, laughs this off. “I’m happy as a clam!” Cutting hair is something he has come to love. Dez thought he knew what his spark was, but life’s events helped him to discover a different one along the way.

When I think back to the person I was in college as I wrestled with vocational discernment, I wish I could recommend this film to myself. One of the many reasons I enjoyed Soul is that it gives some guidance and encouragement to those who are struggling with these big questions of vocation. Dez’s story helps to reframe what the film means by the spark, and might help to shift our thinking as well. As Joe continues his quest to return to his body, he comes to understand the spark in a new way. Instead of a special purpose, he calls it instead “the last piece to fill in when you’re ready to come live.” 

Talking about passion and vocation in this way reframes how we might think about Mary Oliver’s question. We might be tempted to think of discovering our vocation as discovering the one particular thing we were born to do. But, discerning a vocation is not the same as solving a puzzle, which we either succeed or fail at doing. If Dez had thought this way, he might have found himself unhappily wishing he were a vet rather than the spectacular barber he was. Rather, it’s helpful to think of our vocational discernment in terms of this spark. 

God’s call to us is not necessarily to one thing or another, but rather to a life well-lived. Instead of a puzzle we are made to solve, God gives us the freedom to piece together our passions in order to discover what a fulfilled life will look like for us. God’s desire is not to impose something on us from the outside. God instead calls us through our passions, through our sparks. That’s how we can do honor to the gift of life God gives us.

One passion that has always been a part of my own life is soccer. As I discerned a Jesuit vocation, I felt like I was supposed to leave that part of my life behind, even though it’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember. But, I found my way back to the field in philosophy studies as a chaplain, and I have now spent every year of my Jesuit formation since vows working with sports teams. My life in athletics, both before and after becoming a Jesuit, has continued to form me and help me grow in so many ways, including in my spiritual life. Sports has continued to be a spark through which God has called me to be a minister. 

In Soul, Pixar gives us a parable about vocation. This is not an accident; director Pete Docter relied quite a bit on Fr. James Martin’s book The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything. We can see echoes of Ignatian prayer throughout, including a good understanding of consolation and desolation as the signposts we need to be attentive to in our discernment process. Although Joe and the other characters do not use these terms, we can see his life being guided by a growing awareness of moments of joy and also disquiet. After he plays his gig and experiences dryness afterward, a reflective moment helps him to realize that his consolation, his joy, isn’t just from playing piano, but also from his relationships with friends, family, his students, and even 22. 

In the end, both in the film and in our own lives, finding the spark is not the conclusion of the story. In fact, we don’t even learn what 22’s spark is, even though most of the film is spent on the quest to discover it. What the spark itself is, the passion that is discovered, is not the most important point. The spark is not the end, but rather another beginning, moving us toward living a passion-filled and joyful existence. That is a way to really honor the “wild and precious” gift of life we’ve been given.