“But you will be faced, now,” she explained gently, “with pain of a magnitude that none of us here can comprehend because it is beyond our experience. The Receiver himself was not able to describe it, only to remind us that you would be faced with it, that you would need immense courage. We cannot prepare you for that.[”]
Here, the Elders give Jonas his Assignment for adulthood, to serve the community as Receiver of Memories, and reveal that his Assignment will involve excruciating pain. However, not even the Elders really understand what pain means, because their society is structured to eradicate any form of negativity. This painless blankness is the base from which Jonas’s transformation will begin, as he learns that the experience of pain is what makes the experience of pleasure possible. Jonas will come to realize that he lives in a society that, in an effort to achieve peace and perfection, has forgotten how to feel.
We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.
The Giver explains to Jonas why their society eliminated pain. Pain means vulnerability. When we hurt, we feel powerless, because something outside our control has commandeered us. We instinctively try to control as much as we can, fearing the unknown. However, Jonas’s story calls into question whether total control should even be desired. The existence of pain--chance, mistakes, consequences, failure— is what gives the human experience meaning, defining the good times by their contrast with the bad times. The heights of life are what “we had to let go of” in pursuit of control.
Jonas did not want to go back. He didn’t want the memories, didn’t want the honor, didn’t want the wisdom, didn’t want the pain. He wanted his childhood again, his scraped knees and ball games.
Having experienced some of the Giver’s most painful memories, Jonas recoils in fear. He, and we, can see the rationale behind his society’s eradication of pain. Some parts of the human experience are devastating, and no amount of wisdom or reason can dilute that cold, merciless pain. Though we know that this society’s way of life is unnatural, and that nothing can justify the Elders’ deeper cruelties, we can understand the thought process that led to this point. Feeling extremes of emotion is deeply human, but so too is the endless pursuit of progress and perfection.
“I liked the feeling of love,” he confessed. He glanced nervously at the speaker on the wall, reassuring himself that no one was listening. “I wish we still had that,” he whispered. “Of course,” he added quickly, “I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.” “What do you mean?” Jonas hesitated. He wasn’t certain, really, what he had meant. He could feel that there was risk involved, though he wasn’t sure how.
Jonas is wrestling with the inner instincts he has inherited from his society. The Giver has just given him a memory of a family enjoying a Christmas morning together—a memory of love. Years of indoctrination and emotion-killing pills tell Jonas that this feeling of love must be wrong, dangerous, untrustworthy. However, he realizes he’s never been told why love is a risk. The real answer is that love opens us up to pain. The pursuit of love comes with an unspoken acceptance that, someday, you will hurt. To the community, anything certain to cause pain is unacceptable.
Once he had yearned for choice. Then, when he had had a choice, he had made the wrong one: the choice to leave. And now he was starving. But if he had stayed… His thoughts continued. If he had stayed, he would have starved in other ways. He would have lived a life hungry for feelings, for color, for love. And Gabriel? For Gabriel there would have been no life at all. So there had not really been a choice.
Having escaped from his town into the wilderness beyond, Jonas fully understands how pain makes him human, and how subjective, emotional wellness is just as crucial as objective, physical wellness. Jonas is tired, isolated, lost, and hungry, but he knows he will be happier. He knows now, thanks to the Giver, that joy lies on the other side of pain, when we are strong enough to get through. Jonas has saved himself and the infant Gabriel from the horror of a painless life, and now their future looks much brighter.