Last week, I saw “The Giver” in a nearly empty movie theater. I haven’t re-read the novel in years, but I read it twice as a kid and it was one of my favorite books. It did a good job of putting into words things I was thinking and feeling. To me, this was the original dystopian novel, before Hunger Games, before Divergent/Insurgent/Allegiant, and technically before Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, and 1984, as I didn’t read those until high school. On an aside, Lois Lowry wrote another book that I also loved, called Number the Stars. She is a fantastic author in her own right. Kudos to her.
I remember when I first read the book in elementary school. I read it for fun, not even in class, as it was part of the book club that monthly fliers went out for. I begged my mom to buy it for me. My parents didn’t spoil me much, but they did keep me in books between frequent trips to the library and occasionally buying books here and there for me.
First off, Meryl Streep was eerily creepy and effective. I was glad to see such a high profile, award-winning star cast in this film. A strong cast will play up the movie even more. But perhaps, that is the business/commercial side of me. True talent in the cast, proven talent, really does lend itself to bringing stories to life, and classic works of art into the light.
Secondly, the Dude abides in his role as the Giver. In my first readings of the Giver, I couldn’t quite discern the relationship between Jonas and the Giver. I wasn’t sure if the Giver was some creepy old man bordering on the edge of child molester. This movie did a great job of illustrating a “perfectly normal” connection between two people with a gift, burdened with the knowledge and emotion of “seeing beyond”. It was not an inappropriate relationship by any means, but served as a connection outside of any family, that the two felt in a world without passionate bonds.
I remember thinking when I was younger, that I was a lot like Jonas. I didn’t feel super great at any one thing. I felt like I was pretty good at a lot of things. I also had no idea what my future held for me, but I knew I had a depth of emotion unlike most people I encountered. I imagined myself as the Receiver of Memories, burdened with the pain and the knowing. I felt like I, too, saw and felt things, beyond. This was one of the first stories where I really identified with the protagonist. I saw all this happiness in other kids around me, but I don’t know that I felt it the same way they did. I was a bit of a loner, smaller than the other kids, and a bit of a runt. I got on fine with kids at the private school I attended up until 5th grade, but when I moved to a public school in the middle of 5th grade, it’s like I became the small fish in a big pond, and I realized how different I was.
I also thought what Jonas did to try to change the way things were and challenge the status quo were heroic and legendary. That capability of independent thought, because you can see things others can’t, is both a blessing and curse. Besides, would you really want a life lived in black in white? No color? No glorious smells, no emotions? Is that a life worth living? Further, perhaps we need things like fear, pain, and war, to remind us how wonderful comfort, health, and peace really are.
Some would argue pain is evil, and we must give up desire and self, our very uniqueness and individuality, to eliminate pain and suffering in our lives. We should give them up and join the “enlightenment” of cosmic oneness to find a utopia without pain. It reminds me of something Yoda said to Anakin Skywalker:
YODA: Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side.
ANAKIN: I won’t let my visions come true, Master Yoda.
YODA: Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is.
ANAKIN: What must I do, Master?
YODA: Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.
Choice, love, desire, pleasure, and attachment are dangerous, as they can lead to pain, but without them, I maintain life has no purpose. Growing attached to someone or something could lead to the loss of that which we love, but life without love is empty. I repeat for effect: Life, without love, is empty.
Purpose comes from choice – what you choose to put your mind and life’s work to. Purpose comes from overcoming obstacles and conquering adversity. Yes, with choice, we are allowed to make mistakes, which means we have the power to choose poorly, and that could lead to pain. Choice is dangerous because we become accountable for our own choices, but without it, life has no meaning – it’s predetermined, colorless, and merely feels like going through the motions when we feel powerless to control our own destinies. Greatness in life is found by overcoming adversity, getting knocked down and getting back up again, not by the absence of adversity.
I also see this as a story of a child learning to see past the happy and safe confines of childhood into the bigger world from which he’s been previously protected, and realizing that the wonderful security of childhood, the rules and foundations of that world, no longer apply in the adult universe. People’s day-to-day lives are very different from what you perceive them to be when you’re a child. Neighbors, friends, family, who were the very core of your world, seem to drift away and become distant as you make your way through life. You will continue to form new unexpected and important connections that may overturn the world to which you’ve become accustomed.
The world is not the stable place you experienced as a child, with rules to ensure your safety and innocence through simplicity and predictability. The world is full of beautiful things and love, but it also has unbearable cruelty and pain. The absence of feeling in the midst of this growing up is the inner conflict Jonas faces. He realizes that his father kills babies for a living. He can’t talk to his parents or share his learnings with his sister once he begins sessions with the Giver, when all he wants to do is selflessly share the joy with people he cares about. What he goes through, I think everyone goes through this when growing up – an onslaught of overwhelming emotion, seeing what’s good and evil with a fresh pair of innocent eyes, the feeling of loneliness and no longer fitting in with the world you grew up in, and the sudden knowledge that your parents and the world is not what you thought it to be.
John Steinbeck captured that feeling perfectly when he wrote:
“You’re growing up. Maybe that’s it,” he said softly. “Sometimes I think the world tests us most sharply then, and we turn inward and watch ourselves with horror. But that’s not the worst. We think everybody is seeing into us. The dirt is very dirty and purity is shining white.”
In my life, I spent much of my life in a role as the Receiver. Mostly because I didn’t believe I had anything yet to give. As I grow older, I play both roles every day. I am a Giver when I teach people less experienced than myself, when I share my stories and experiences with those who haven’t had their own yet. I give when I share of myself; I share my pain and my joy. I receive pain and joy from my friends as they unburden their loads and trust me to share their ups and downs. A joy shared is doubled, and pain shared is halved. We were put on this earth not to see through each other, but to see each other through.
May your relationships be give and take as well; as one person cannot bear all the pain of the world by themselves, nor can one person contain all the happiness they feel. Give and Receive. Balance in the force, there must be.