Sheldon “Shel” Silverstein had one of the more extraordinary literary, music, and art careers you will ever read about, though many people will not recognize his name or face. He was the eccentric, artistic combination of country music legend, composer, cartoonist, author of children’s books, and columnist for Playboy magazine.
His two most famous works are on opposite ends of the creative spectrum. The first is a country music song recorded by Johnny Cash for which Silverstein won a Grammy, a song entitled “A Boy Named Sue.” The other work is a children’s picture book he called “The Giving Tree,” now a classroom favorite.
Silverstein’s work that I most enjoy is called “The Missing Piece,” a book about a rolling circle that has a huge, gaping wedge cut out. The circle rolls along clumsily while singing, “I’m lookin’ for my missin’ piece; I’m lookin’ for my missin’ piece; here I go, lookin’ for my missin’ piece.”
Since the circle has this missing piece, he travels slowly. But his pace allows him to enjoy the scenery around him, to talk to the butterflies, and to live happily. After many miles, one day he finally he finds his missing piece – a triangle chunk left along the road that fits him perfectly.
Now the made-whole circle can zip along at incredible speed, and he does, having a marvelous time. But after a while of zooming through life, the circle realizes that he can’t do the things he used to do. He can’t enjoy the countryside. He doesn’t move slowly enough to sing his songs. He has no time to enjoy the company of the butterflies.
Consequently, the circle removes that once missing piece and goes back to his previous life, a life that was slower, a life where weakness was obvious, but the life he best lived. And that is Silverstein’s stroke of brilliance: He reveals both the human condition, and the way we can be happy and healthy.
All of us have gaping holes, missing pieces as it were. Sometimes they are obvious, and sometimes we hide them. They may be physical ailments, emotional trauma, past mistakes, or shameful failures. These limit us, forcing us to shuffle along the road slower than we would like.
Yet, it’s at the places where we feel vulnerable and empty – sore spots and cracked veneer – that allow God to arrive with something the New Testament simply calls “grace.” In fact, the only receptacle for divine grace is human emptiness. When we are weak, God is strong. When we decrease, spiritual power increases. When we feel like life is one huge, colossal malfunction, that is the cry to heaven for some necessary help.
As Leonard Cohen said (another artistic genius), “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” So, we must embrace the holes in our hearts, where pieces are missing, as the very places that grace can break through. And once grace is inside, it can heal and truly complete us.