Until a few months ago, I’d never given The Giver much thought. That’s when a friend from work lent me her copy over a sunny weekend in June, and I was surprised to suddenly find myself curled up on the couch with my face glued to the page. The Giver might be found in the children’s section of your local library, but like all great literature, it sweeps away adults and children alike. It’s been almost two months since I ripped through that book, but the story – and the questions it posed – still buzz around my head.
In case you were deprived like I was, The Giver is about a boy named Jonas who lives in a supposedly Utopian community sometime in the future. In this community, order is paramount. People are genetically engineered so they can’t see colors, which could further racism. They take drugs to control their sexual impulses. The weather is controlled to appear the same all the time. There is no music or art or dance. Children are born by specially designated birthmothers, and then assigned by a committee to a family unit, a mother and a father who have also been matched by the committee. The kids attend school, where they learn strict rules that maintain harmony in the community, rules like curfew and precision of language. As they grow up, the committee watches each child carefully to determine where his aptitudes lie. On his twelfth birthday, the committee assigns each child a job. Some become birthmothers, others become teachers, still others lawyers and doctors. Jonas is singled out to be the community’s Receiver.
The Receiver is called such because he receives all of the community’s memories. The former Receiver, now called the Giver, passes on to Jonas good memories, like the memory of a home at Christmas and sledding down a hill, as well as the bad memories of war, of injury, of hatred, of racism. Jonas’ job is to keep all the memories inside himself so the community can live in ignorant bliss.
As I read The Giver, I couldn’t help thinking, “Gosh, who doesn’t want to live in a world without pain? A world without war? Without racism?” I know I do. Granted, I want to keep my ability to choose, to see colors, to listen to Mozart, to love. But the goal of the community in The Giver is one that I share: a world without suffering. And I’m not alone. Barring masochists (who are believed to be mentally ill), we all want a world without suffering.
And moreover, we should. A world without suffering is a world where we are happy, where we no longer groan under the struggle of daily existence, where we see in full what is invisible to us now, where we are human beings fully alive.
So why shouldn’t we try to manufacture perfection? And why doesn’t it work out in The Giver?
It’s not the goal of the community that’s wrong; it’s that they’re trying to construct perfection in a world where perfection is not yet possible. The attempt is doomed to fail from the start.
While thinking about this, I was reminded of Jesus’ parable of the weeds in Matthew. A man sows good seed in his field, but while he is sleeping, an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat, so when the wheat sprouts, the weeds grow as well. The owner fears that if he pulls up the weeds before the harvest, he may uproot the wheat with them. So he instructs his servants, “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”
The committee in The Giver try to entirely uproot the weeds of pain, of war, of racism, and as a result, not only are good things like colors, family, love, and music, lost, but evil things ensue: in particular, infanticide of babies who don’t meet certain weight requirements and senicide of the elderly when their health begins to decline.
As in all Utopian literature, as soon as man tries to perfect his world, he ends up destroying it instead.
But notice in Matthew there is a moment when the weeds are, in fact, finally separated from the wheat: the harvest. In Matthew, this signifies the moment when the world is fully redeemed.
I was struck by the difficulty of knowing the harvest will be a good time, of desiring the harvest, yet having to remain with the weeds until then. It feels a bit like the dream Jonas has after he first receives the memory of riding a sled:
“Always in the dream, it seemed as if there were a destination: a something – he could not grasp what – that lay beyond the place where the thickness of snow brought the sled to a stop. He was left, upon awakening, with the feeling that he wanted, even somehow needed, to reach the something that waited in the distance. The feeling that it was good. That it was welcoming. That it was significant. But he did not know how to get there.”
That’s where we are now: knowing there is something beyond, something we want but are unable to get right now, not knowing how to try – and living patiently among the weeds until then.
(P.S. I interviewed Brenton Thwaites, the Australian actor who plays Jonas in the movie, and he had some interesting thoughts to share. Read the story in The Dallas Morning News.)