The recent popularity of stories about utopia is no surprise. The possibility fascinates us. Pain deeply touches each of us in some way and it is natural for us to wonder if human life without pain is possible. To this question The Giver answers yes, it may be possible to remove the experience of pain from our lives but it may not be worth the price of doing so. The Giver insists that in removing pain and suffering from our lives and from our world, we must also remove love, joy, faith, and hope.
At first it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that letting go of the experience of pain necessitates letting go of so much pleasure as well, but I think The Giver is touching on something profound here. I think most of us would be quick to agree that we want to avoid a life without love, joy, faith, and hope. As Jonas says, "If you can't feel, what's the point?" But the chief elder warned that with love comes ugly experiences and emotions as well - jealously, hate, rejection. When we experience love, we experience something of God. We experience something so deep, so profound, so powerful that we as humans don't quite know how to handle it. At times we mess it up. We end up hurting the ones we love or being hurt ourselves. Would you avoid that pain if it meant avoiding love as well?
I don't think The Giver was necessarily trying to offer a theodicy, but it prompted me to reflect on the theological question. Theodicy is the attempt to understand why God allows evil in the world. There have been many attempts through history to understand this difficult question, but after watching The Giver I found myself reflecting on the answer offered by Gottfried Leibniz in his work the Théodicée. When I learned about Leibniz's perspective in college, a professor explained it with an analogy. He pointed out that fire can be used to cook our food and to provide warmth in the winter, but fire can also be destructive and can cause death. Still, it may be better to have fire than to not have fire. Similarly, Leibniz's theodicy suggests that when God considered all the possible ways to create the world with varying levels of good and evil, this was the best of all possible worlds. There is some logic to the argument, but critics like Voltaire suggest that there is too much suffering in the world to justify this kind of optimism. Personally, I believe there is probably a degree of truth in this solution and many other solutions, but ultimately this attempt at theodicy, like all attempts at theodicy, fails to satisfy the human in pain.
After watching The Giver, I reflected on Leibniz's perspective once again. Certainly there are experiences of excessive senseless cruelty and suffering, but is all pain senseless and excessive? I think we all have experiences suggesting this is not the case in small experiences. For example, I grew up in Cleveland where the weather changes dramatically from day to day. When we get that perfect day where the temperature is warm but not hot, the sky is blue with a few puffy clouds floating by, and the sun is shining, Clevelanders celebrate! We go to parks, we sit on outdoor patios at restaurants, we drive with our windows down on the freeway. I spent a year in San Antonio and I remember one of those perfect days in particular in which I remember driving with the windows down past a park that was completely empty and arriving at a restaurant where I asked to sit on an outdoor patio which was completely empty because all of the customers were sitting inside in the air conditioning. Without experiencing the dreary days of snow and bitter cold, they didn't seem to appreciate the gorgeous days of sunshine. It's a small example, but could it be illustrative of the more profound experiences of pain or of joy?
Can it be that the pain and suffering we experience is necessary to experience goodness? Can we experience the thrill of victory without also experiencing the agony of defeat? Can we appreciate the exhilaration of successfully achieving a goal without feeling the frustration of adversity or the sting of failure? Can we feel the intense passion of love without suffering through heartache and rejection? These aren't questions that are answered in an hour and forty minute movie or a 240 page book or a brief blog post, they are questions to be pondered and revisited over a lifetime. The Giver has prompted me to ponder anew.