The Giver – Living Courageous Lives in a “Whatever” World

As my family cleaned-up after our Thanksgiving celebration, I had the chance to finish reading The Giver by Lois Lowry. For me the mark of a good book is that the story stays with you, even if you try to shake it off. You can’t help but see the world a little differently. Countless friends have recommended this book and it did not disappoint. I went to bed disturbed but with a clearer picture of true courage, what matters in life and dreams for my children.

The Giver is set in a future where pain and suffering is eliminated by centering society on “Sameness”.  Life is orderly and futures determined by a deeply adhered-to set of rules along with guidance from a council of elders. This focus on safety and comfort results in the eradication of emotional depth, choice and passion. Even the concepts of love, color and pain are no longer part of reality.

Things change when the main character, 12 year old Jonas, is chosen to become the “Receiver of Memory,” a role that carries the burden of storing all memories from the past. During the process of receiving these memories his eyes are opened to the emptiness of his current life versus what it could be like.

As I closed the book, warmed by an evening fire and a full stomach, I began to ponder the importance of safety. We live in safe and prosperous times. Even the poorest in our country have the highest quality of life in the history of mankind. Our country’s “safety nets”, although far from perfect, make sure no one starves and people have access to basic care. Laws are in place to protect how we worship and with whom we associate. We still have a ways to go but we have made so much progress in a short amount of time.

So what does this mean for the next generation? They might live longer lives and have more choices but will they be sheltered from understanding true needs and injustice? Where is their training ground to practice courage and face fears? If the boldest heroes are born out of suffering, then will our children be prepared for those times when they need to choose between comfort or courage?

Here are a few examples of people that chose courage:

Rosa Parks should have played it safe; she had a decent job as a seamstress in a local department store and was already engaged in the civil rights movement as the secretary for the local NAACP chapter. She did not need to go looking for trouble. But something inside compelled her to not only reject the notion that unequal treatment of blacks and whites was acceptable but that she had to do more.

Over 20,000 Dutch people hid and protected Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Miep Gies was one of those that helped. She worked for Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, and concealed the family and several others in a hidden room attached to their office from July 1942 until their arrest in August 4, 1944. It was Miep that had the foresight to gather Anne’s papers and hide them until the only surviving family member, Otto, was released. As for considering herself a hero, in her memoirs she wrote, “There is nothing special about me. I have never wanted special attention. I was only willing to do what was asked of me and what seemed necessary at the time.”

In 2008 the Taliban began taking over more of Pakistan and banned television, girls from attending school and women in public. A young girl named Malala Yousafzai, whose father ran several local schools, started speaking publicly about the importance of education. At age 11 she began anonymously blogging for the BBC, documenting the violence and destruction waged by the Taliban. Even in the midst of threats, she kept speaking out and attending school. Finally on October 9, 2012, Malala was shot in the head and neck while riding home on a school bus by a group of Taliban assassins. She was sent to England for recovery and the world became aware of her story and the plight of millions of children around the world who can’t get an education. She continues to speak out around the world even though the Taliban has pledged to kill her and her father.

By no means do I dream about arrest or death for my children. But I do hunger that their lives have meaning and they experience passion. I also hope they would have the courage to take a stand for something in a “whatever” culture.

I think this idea of giving 100% really came to my heart when I had my boy. We named him Gideon, which in the Old Testament was a reluctant and unlikely warrior for God. When we are first introduced to Gideon, he is the lowest of the low, basically hiding from an invading army that took over the land. When an angel from the Lord comes to him with the news that God is with him and he has been chosen to lead an army to defeat the invaders, Gideon’s reaction is anything but courageous. Eventually he goes on to lead one of the most tactically inspiring battles in the Bible.

I see those same traits in my young son, extremely strong and loving but can be difficult engage and bull-headed at times. When I watch him peacefully sleeping, I wonder what my son would do if he felt a calling to lead with an uncertain outcome. What would I want him to do? Part of me would want him to stay low, safe, hidden where he will not be subject to the world’s brutality and an undesirable future. That part is the nurturing mom who carried him safely for 9 months, read countless Consumer Report reviews on car seats and still makes sure he wears his bicycle helmet.

But there is another side to me. One that wants to change the world but sometimes does not know where to start. I can’t help but tear-up when confronted with dire needs and pain. I want to world to be a better place – one where tyranny does not exist. People can live their lives as best as possible while loving and protecting others. It takes leaders to stand in the gap and fight for those that cannot fight for themselves or don’t even know they are being oppressed or preyed upon.

So what do we want for our kids?

  • Adventure or safety?
  • Passion or protection?
  • Radicalness or reliability?

I do not fault anyone that yearns for protection and comfort. But for me, I have always been an all-or-nothing kind of gal. I have been known to be a tad bit extreme when it comes to the rights and wrongs of this world. And I hope some of this passion rubs off on my children.

So back to the book…Jonas is faced with this same quandary. Does he stay in safety but live an unfulfilled life, or does he put his life on the line for not only his future but those around him.

I did not write a discussion guide for The Giver because I believe the ideas addressed are too weighty to be wrestled with a handful of questions. The book is a short but emotional read, and if time allows it would be an amazing opportunity for parent and child to read together. Some of the questions that came to mind while reading included:

  • How important is safety? What are you or a society willing to sacrifice to eliminate risk? And can you truly eliminate risk?
  • The idea of choice is fascinating. People’s choices can cause extreme joy or suffering for themselves and those around them. How do you balance out people having the right to choose what to do with their lives but still address the possibility they might make wrong and damaging choices?
  • What should one do when faced with an injustice? What if it means you have to break the law or risk your own life?

Maybe the closest my kids will get to experiencing life or death decisions is in a video game. But as long as I can share stories about bold real heroes and quality literature like The Giver, it will go a long way to prepare my children to lead courageous lives. But more importantly my children need to see me spurred into action instead of sitting on the sidelines shaking my head.

So…what do you think? Am I too “out there” with this rant (hidden in the form of a book review) or does this speak to you? How are you preparing your children to be courageous in a “whatever” world? What parts of their lives do you still protect? What stories (real or fictional) have you shared with your kids to prepare them for a hero’s journey?

The Giver published in 1993, written by Lois Lowry. Suitable for children age 8 and up.


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