My wife and I recently sat down with Shel Silverstein’s enchanting, odd, contemporary classic, Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974). Multiple generations of children now have been captivated by this quirky, deceptively simple, sometimes elusive but sometimes unashamedly straightforward collection of poems and drawings. The book in fact—like its descendents, A Light in the Attic and Falling Up—is so popular, it’s managed to stay in print for multiple decades despite selling almost exclusively in hardback.
Here’s one poem that captures much of the book’s essence, the general outlook it encourages children to approach life with:
Listen to the Mustn’ts
Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WONT’S
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me—
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.
And here’s another one:
Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too
Went for a ride in a flying shoe.
“It’s time we flew!”
Said Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too.
Ickle was captain, and Pickle was crew
And Tickle served coffee and mulligan stew
And higher they flew,
Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too.
Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too,
Over the sun and beyond the blue.
“I hope we do!”
Cried Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too.
Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too
Never returned to the world they knew,
Dear Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too.
Combined with a fanciful drawing of boys in aviation helmets riding a shoe over snow-capped mountains, this poem gives concrete form to the same spirit of boundless possibility in “Listen to the Mustn’ts.” And there are numerous others like it.
The book covers a wide range of themes to be sure—some more ambivalent about life on this planet, some of them even dark—but running through the background of the whole thing seems to be this sense of hopeful encouragement. The overcoming of obstacles. Whether those obstacles are mean people, a society that values the wrong things, expectations of parents, or even time, space, and logic.
Other beloved children’s books that share the same general outlook come to mind: The Little Engine that Could, Where the Wild Things Are, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, etc. Certainly there are scads of other themes running through modern children’s lit, and indeed through Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. But in these and so many other wonderful tales aimed at kids, despite the variety of challenges characters face, messages of unbounded potential and the indomitable human spirit ultimately carry the day.
This emphasis on positivity, hope, optimism is in many ways a very good thing. There’s much to commend about it.
But at times, it can be slightly troubling.
Yes, it would seem, we want to instill visions of hope in our children, give them a general framework of positivity for approaching life. Even something as small as getting out of bed each morning is an act of hope. It declares, publicly, that you actually believe some good may well come if you continue going to work, to school, doing. Life, itself, simply requires hope—even of the crabbiest and most cynical of us.
The Christian life, too, seems largely one of waiting and hoping. Hope, in fact, is the final item on St. Paul’s famous list in Romans 5. It’s a list of connected qualities that characterize the person who trusts a transcendent God with his life. It culminates in the hope of redemption. Hope that “does not put us to shame.”
But one thing certainly none of us wants to instill in our children, our fellow man or ourselves is false hope.
After all, though Scripture does hold out immeasurable hope, we also know: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” This message comes shortly after Paul was stoned nearly to death at Lystra (see Acts 14). And we see this principle work itself out in the rest of Paul’s life (beatings, imprisonment, hunger, poverty), as well as in Peter’s, and the whole church’s. All these follow the pattern of the one they worshipped, Christ himself—spoken of by the prophet Isaiah as “despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”
It’s clear, though, that emphasizing this aspect of life, only, isn’t telling the full story.
Neither, however, is resting exclusively on the rosy picture of a life of temporal victory on this earth in this age.
It seems that stories and poems and picture books of this type can perhaps—when left un-nuanced—encourage the dangerous notion that if you just believe (or try) hard enough, you can make whatever you want to happen actually happen, now.
So how do we walk the tight rope? How do we balance “You will inherit the earth” with “you will suffer”?
Asking myself this question brought to mind a profoundly lucid and moving talk I once heard by a minister in New York City, Tim Keller. He was asked to speak at a memorial service at Ground Zero—for families of the victims of 9/11. And he was asked to address the infamous Problem of Evil and Suffering. Daunted by the very idea—and by the fact that he would only have seven minutes—he approached the topic in part by unpacking Paul’s famous words to the Corinthians: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
What does it mean for death, or any kind of suffering, to be “swallowed up?”
Keller, in a later, expanded talk based on that speech, put it this way:
When you swallow and digest things, you take them into yourself and they make you bigger. What does Paul mean when he says the resurrection is going to “swallow up” the evil and suffering you’re going through right now? Some years ago I had a horrible nightmare . . . If you’ve ever heard me use the illustration before, I usually don’t go into detail because it was really the most awful… Basically, I dreamt my entire family had been slaughtered. And then I woke up.
And there they were.
And I want you to know that when I went to sleep that night, before the nightmare, oh I loved my family. I was comforted to see them all around me. But when I woke up, having lost them, and having gotten them back as it were, I couldn’t even look at them without crying. For joy.
What had happened? See, having gotten them back as it were—the experience of losing them made the experience of having them infinitely greater. It’s almost like the experience of losing them had been swallowed up by the experience of having them, so that it was infinitely more precious . . . If Jesus Christ’s resurrection happened—and it did—and that means our resurrection is going to happen—and it will—then it means everything sad, everything horrible, is going to be brought up into our future glory and resurrection, and make it infinitely better than it ever would have been if we’d never had any of those experiences. And that’s the final, and ultimate, defeat of suffering and death.
So what’s the answer? How does Scripture deal with this irresolvable tension in the end?
But not some ethereal, disembodied state in which our immaterial souls float on metaphysical clouds of forgetfulness and simply feel. That’s not the heaven presented in Scripture. Rather, our ultimate hope is in the day heaven and earth meet, when the Creator and Redeemer of His people “makes all things new.” Old, tragic things that were as they never should have been are still known, but they’re swallowed up, like a kind of seasoning that sharpens and brightens the beauty of what the basic, most fundamental reality is—a bodily life in New Heavens and New Earth, where both people and place are restored to what they always should have been.
So we can perhaps read poems like Silverstein’s “Listen to the Mustn’ts” and affirm a child’s natural, hopeful response, telling them—and ourselves—that even though such hope may ultimately not be satisfied here, we can still rightly hold on to it.
The paradigm set forth in Scripture provides the necessary nuance for a truly realistic view of hope. Hope that “will not put us to shame.” The reason for this hope is demonstrated in Christ Himself—described by Paul in letters to the Colossians and Corinthians as “the firstborn from the dead,” “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” The resurrected Christ is that first bud of the season—to use Paul’s agricultural metaphor—which isn’t itself the final harvest but which promises the harvest to come. We’ve already seen it. So now we wait for the harvest. Of all periods in history, we on this side of the cross and resurrection of the Son of God have reason to hope.
Garret Johnson teaches creative writing at the University of Houston-Downtown, Houston Baptist University, and elsewhere. Aside from being a longtime devotee of theological and philosophical study, and of the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and is currently touching up his first novel.