I’m Searching for My Missing Piece


By Nandini dasi

Much to my mother’s and the local librarians’ chagrin, throughout my childhood I repeatedly borrowed Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends.  Enthralled with Silverstein’s poetry, I would quote his visceral lines about ripening trash whenever my mother asked me to take out the garbage or when I wanted to play “Hug o’ War” with my sister. Among Silverstein’s stories, I especially loved The Missing Piece.

The story, like most that resonate with children and adults alike, is a simple one. A Pacman-shaped disc with a black dot for an eye and a wedge-shaped void for a mouth rolls across the country, singing while searching for his “missing piece” (presumably a cheese-shaped wedge). Our protagonist discovers pieces of every shape, but in true Goldilocks fashion, he rejects those that are too big or too small in search of the one that is just right.  I loved the Pacman’s indefatigable search, propelled as it was by kid-friendly sing-song rhymes.  Even at a young age, I appreciated Silverstein’s message that we are all seekers, moving in pursuit of that which will complete us.

Of course, our own search may be more complex than that of Silverstein’s happy-go-lucky Pacman. As seekers of fulfillment, we may try to participate more fully in the world by trying out ideas, exploring new identities, and joining various communities.  By contrast, we may just as often renounce those added “pieces” when we find them to be ill-fitting or tiresome.  Like Silverstein’s Pacman, we may continue our search for completeness even after various solutions prove temporary.

Ultimately, Silverstein’s Pacman finds his perfectly fitting wedge. But upon inserting the piece into its apparently rightful place, the Pacman discovers that he cannot sing through an occluded mouth. The Pacman concludes that he was more “whole” as a seeker than as one who finds. He rejects the wedge and continues his rolling journey indefinitely.

While the moral to Silverstein’s poem is an interesting comment on the fallacy of seeking an external solution to an internal longing, my assessment of the poem’s outcome has changed over time.  Revisiting Silverstein after many years, I considered, “What if we are not the big piece, searching for our little piece?  And what if there is something that, upon discovery, will serve to amplify our innermost voice rather than muffle it? What finding might put us on a new trajectory, rather than send us for another loop on a well-trampled circular path?”

Of course, there is truth to Silverstein’s suggestion that the goal is the journey, and that a certain peace may accompany the realization that “completeness” won’t come from the outside. But Silverstein’s message, which has captured the attention of adult critics as well as children, falls short in one crucial respect:  While some may celebrate the Pacman’s rejection of the missing piece, an alternative reading is that the Pacman’s response is one of sad resignation.  In one sense, the Pacman embraces incompleteness — and with that, he celebrates his position as the center of his own universe. The New York Review of Books noted that the Pacman rejects the possibility of “transcendental harmony” when he abandons the search.

Despite Silverstein’s problematic thesis, we can still learn much from playing with the simple geometric forms that populate his poem.  Consider, for example, if we turn Silverstein’s Pacman inside out, and cast the comparatively small “missing piece” as our protagonist. What then might we learn about our tendency to search, capacity to find, and the part’s relation to the whole?

In describing our position as units of consciousness, my teacher likens the essential self to a small, negatively charged metal shaving. If we position that small flake of metal in proximity to a large, positively charged magnet, the small piece will be immediately drawn in, with no possibility of resistance.  This illustrates that by assuming the negative position of humility, service, and surrender, in our own conduct as “missing pieces” we may be drawn up by the positive (the infinite). That pull is one of affection, not force.

In our everyday experience, we may feel some semblance of magnetic pull towards a prospect of greater freedom, or towards a relationship that we believe will make us whole.  Even if we conduct ourselves otherwise by asserting our “independence” and autonomy, we still harbor some aspiration to experience our self-hood in more expansive and connected ways.

But what impedes that dynamic oneness and difference between the piece and the whole?  To the extent that our conduct is “positively charged” – independent, egoistic – to that extent we set ourselves up to be pushed away by an otherwise attractive infinite, just like a metal flake is repelled by a magnet of the same charge.  The desire on the part of the minute particle to conquer via knowledge, austerity, or any other effort is repellent.

When we give up the notion that we are “the actor,” or “the doer,” only then will we position ourselves in favorable relation to that whole – Krsna. Only then can we be “complete.” When we choose to be “negatively charged,” the connotation is positive. We do not adopt a negative attitude or fall victim to helpless inertia. Rather, we cultivate humility and a serving attitude that frees us up to be drawn in by the whole. Even over a great distance, the whole recognizes the “missing pieces” that are positioned to attract rather than repel. By his generous agent, Sri Guru, Krsna draws in the finite piece to the infinite whole – with love as the magnetic principle.

I think back to the implied happiness of the Pacman disc, roaming the country and accepting incompleteness as fulfillment. Although this is a message that might support a particular (perhaps) Americanized concept of self-worth, it may not promote the progressive pursuit of one’s innermost potential. Conversely, in our experience we may find that if we abandon the search on our own terms and instead position ourselves in a way that we can be found, an entirely different prospect unfolds.   While there may be “effort” in the negative position – energetic dedication to service, chanting, hearing, and listening – by becoming small and insignificant, we become so much more susceptible to the magnetic charge that is the whole, the infinite heart, of the divine.

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