February 22, 2012
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Shel Silverstein is one of my all time favorite children’s authors. His absurd wit, childlike illustrations, use of language, and deep philosophical themes combine in several timeless stories and poems that are still relevant to adults. A fantastic example is the story The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. I wrote a paper about this book for one of my first college English courses, so the following is essentially a paraphrase of that paper.
In case you forgot (or haven’t read it), The Missing Piece Meets the Big O is about a wedge-shaped character called the Missing Piece who is looking for its corresponding shape it imagines has a void the exact size of itself where it can fit in. The first line reads, “The missing piece sat alone… waiting for someone to come along and take it somewhere.” Over the course of the story, it roams around looking for the perfect match with the right size hole to fill. It joins up with one piece, but soon outgrows it. Several failed attempts to find a match later, the Piece meets the Big O who has the ability to roll around on its own. The Big O rejects the Missing Piece who becomes inspired to try rolling alone, too. After a while, The Missing Piece flops and rolls until its edges wear down and it becomes round like a circle. Only then is it able to reunite with the Big O so the two wholes can happily roll along side each other.
By now, the true meaning of The Missing Piece Meets the Big O should be obvious to adults (and honestly probably impossible for a child to comprehend). It’s about growing out of the naïve view of love as the coming together of two soul mates like puzzle pieces who compensate for each other’s voids. At the beginning of the story the Missing Piece is lonely and thinks he needs to fill the void in another person who will “take it places.” Through its journey we see several archetypal relationship situations: the couple that grows out of each other, the pairs that are simply bad fits, attempts by the Missing Piece to make himself more attractive to a mate, those with too many pieces missing (too many emotional voids to fill), or those that “didn’t know a thing about fitting” aka how to have a meaningful relationship.
The allegory demonstrates how we must be whole before we can be happy and sustain healthy relationships. It’s our own responsibility to take ourselves places instead of relying on someone else to do it for us or fix us. Otherwise, when we fill our voids with each other, we make our happiness dependent on them and often fall into the trap of codependence. Codependent relationships are unhealthy (with the exception of parent-child relationships) because they’re based on need, not want nor choice. Two people grow so entwined in each other’s existence until the thought of separation is too painful, yet neither is happy or whole because they’re sustaining themselves off each other– draining the life out of one another. It becomes a situation where they are together because they need to be because the alternative is unpleasant, not because they want to be. As soon as one party no longer needs whatever the other was providing– be it companionship, sex, money, transportation, or whatever– the codependent relationship falls apart. The Missing Piece should be a reminder to us all: to be happy with another person we must first be happy with ourselves.