Books & Movies & The Meaning of Life
Sun, June 30, 2019 at 10:36AM

I was recently introduced to a children’s book I had not previously encountered: Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. It is a short, moving, simply-illustrated story about the relationship, and various encounters, between a boy and a tree, over the boy’s lifetime (into old age). A friend shared with me that the book was deliciously, perhaps painfully, illustrative of the role of parenthood. (Indeed, with a little research, I found that numerous interpretations of the book abound, including those with religious, friendship, environmental, satirical, and parent-child themes.) The same book popped into my consciousness again this week in a list of the best books to read at every age, from 1 to 100,” published by the Washington Post.

So, I already had Shel Silverstein and his work on my brain when I watched “The Upside” on the plane from MSP to SEA a few days ago. This movie, starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, is a story about a billionaire quadriplegic, Phillip (Cranston), and his ex-con caregiver, Dell (Hart). At one point, fairly late in the film, Phillip reluctantly agrees to a “date” with a woman, Lily (in a cameo role by Julianna Margulies), with whom he has been sharing an old-fashioned, snail-mail, love-letter relationship. Interestingly, Phillip and Lily had never met in person. This is where Shel Silverstein enters. Lily, during the course of this in-person lunch date with Phillip, describes the Silverstein book, The Missing Piece. In the story, a circle, with a pie-shaped piece missing, wanders (rolls) around looking for the perfectly-shaped piece which will complete it. When the circle finally finds the right object, it, at first, happily rolls along; ultimately, however, it discards the piece because it now moves too fast to be able to enjoy the companionship of others it had previously enjoyed, such as worms and butterflies. The storytelling leads Lily to reject Phillip, which devastates him.

I was intrigued by the fact that this children’s book was used to move the plot forward. So, I found and read The Missing Piece, and have been meditating on it a lot. For me, the story brings up a number of fundamental philosophical questions: What am I doing here, wandering around, in this life? What am I looking for? What is the nature of wholeness? What does it mean to be complete? Do I have to give up self to be with another? Does that other have to give up self to be with me? Can I be with another and be myself? Are soul-mates a myth? Does a union, perfect or not, create less happiness, not more? How could that be? What is happiness? What is relationship? What is perfection? Why pursue it?

As usual, I am a little confused. Life is such a mystery. So many questions. So few answers. So many books. So little time.

[Additional resources: The Upside. The Missing Piece.]

Article originally appeared on TechnoMonk’s Musings (
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