The Giving Tree

My husband and I both have very fond memories of reading the book The Giving Tree as children. I always thought it was a wonderful book and it was one of the first children’s books that we put on our wish list. We were very excited to receive a beautiful hard cover copy of it as a gift for our baby. So, a few nights ago I decided to open it up and read it aloud to my stomach. Ever since then I have sort of been thinking about it off and on. Something about it really bothered me when I read it the other night and it continued to bother me throughout the last few days. Today thoughts started to form around this vague bothered feeling and I want to share them here.

I’m guessing that many of you have read this book as it is a very popular children’s story, but if you haven’t here is a short recap of the story from Amazon:

“In Shel Silverstein’s popular tale of few words and simple line drawings, a tree starts out as a leafy playground, shade provider, and apple bearer for a rambunctious little boy. Making the boy happy makes the tree happy, but with time it becomes more challenging for the generous tree to meet his needs. When he asks for money, she suggests that he sell her apples. When he asks for a house, she offers her branches for lumber. When the boy is old, too old and sad to play in the tree, he asks the tree for a boat. She suggests that he cut her down to a stump so he can craft a boat out of her trunk. He unthinkingly does it. At this point in the story, the double-page spread shows a pathetic solitary stump, poignantly cut down to the heart the boy once carved into the tree as a child that said “M.E. + T.” “And then the tree was happy… but not really.” When there’s nothing left of her, the boy returns again as an old man, needing a quiet place to sit and rest. The stump offers up her services, and he sits on it. “And the tree was happy.”

Ok, so I have always thought that this story was a great example of selflessness and generous giving, but as I read it again as an adult I found a whole different story within it and it was honestly unsettling.

Let’s talk about the boy first. The little boy, who grows into an old man through the course of the story, is definitely not someone I want my son to be like. He’s selfish and an incessant consumer. He takes, and takes and takes. He knows the tree loves him and he uses that love to his own advantage to get what he wants. He has no thought for the destructive force of his actions. I do not want my son to manipulate others love for him in the way this boy did. I don’t want him to selfishly walk all over people the way this little boy did. I don’t want him to endlessly consume from others and from the natural resources around him the way this little boy did with no thought of consequences. The boy is not a character I want my son to emulate.

So, how about the tree? When I was younger I felt that the tree was the real hero in the story, the character that should be emulated. I thought the tree’s selfless giving was beautiful and fulfilling, but now I see a different story and a different side of things. It’s true the tree is selfless and giving, generous and loving and these are all characteristics that I want my son to have and strive after. But, as I read the story this time, I felt uncomfortable with the tree’s giving. It seemed unhealthy. The relationship that the tree has with the boy seems abusive and the tree seems to be victimized in the story. The tree allows herself to be walked all over and taken advantage of time and time again. As I read it I felt uncomfortable with the way that the tree enabled and sustained the little boys consumption and selfishness. I do want my son to be giving, I do want him to pour himself out on behalf of others and love others generously, but I do not want my son to become as weak as this tree and allow himself to be abused and taken advantage of like that. As I look more closely at this story I don’t think that the tree is really worthy of emulating either.

I think the story actually shows us how messed up two good things can become in a relationship. Here’s what I mean… Giving selflessly to another is incredibly beautiful and valuable. And I personally also believe that allowing ourselves to accept and receive and take from another what they freely offer us is also incredibly beautiful and valuable. Relationships need and should have both these things. We should be able to give freely and receive freely in relationships. But, I think there needs to be balance. The problem comes when the balance is lost and it becomes all giving or all taking – it’s then that the relationship can become unhealthy like that of the little boy and the tree. At least that’s what I think at this stage in my life as I read this story. Anyone else have any other thoughts on this classic children’s book??

Rejoicing in the journey –
Bethany

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Random Ramblings on Consumerism, Envy, and Greed

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot against “corporate America” and consumerism and the whole mindset behind those things… I want to add my two cents but to be honest I’m not completely sure what my two cents would be… I’m not sure my thoughts are really very coherent on the issue, so I’m just going to throughout some random thoughts in no particular order:

          First, can I just say that from a philosophical/ideological position I really don’t like consumerism and/or corporate America and the attitudes that they create, but from an economic standpoint I can’t really see that anything else would work. Consumerism works because it feeds and is driven on a basic human instinct – self-centeredness and the desire to possess (greed) and control. Other systems don’t work because they go against basic human instinct and that makes them unsustainable. So, I understand that consumerism works, and why, but I don’t like it. Last night we were talking at Craig and Sarah’s about the law that God gave to Moses and someone pointed out how it is interesting that the system God set up for the Israelites didn’t outlaw private property (or consumerism, really) instead it protected it, but it added to it various provisions, various checks and balances you could say that would protect those who needed protecting (indentured servants, the poor, the widows, and orphans, etc). I thought that was interesting. I find it interesting that God often seems to recognize our humanity and our human instincts and desires – he knows that we are broken and that we are going to be greedy and grasping and controlling so in the system he sets up it seems like he provides room for that but also a boundary to how greedy and grasping and controlling we can be. I find that interesting.

          So, I was really surprised at something that happened in me when we are back in the states this time. Ok, so there are always things that I want, but generally (and in the past year especially) I have been fairly content with the material possessions (or lack thereof) in my life. I have had a roof over my head, cloths to wear and food to eat. I think in the last year the only things I really bought where actually necessary purchases. I didn’t buy clothes for myself the whole year, I didn’t buy jewelry or makeup or anything like that. In fact I didn’t even buy books much – I think I bought myself 2 or 3 books all year and that was it and it was fine. I didn’t buy a lot but it never really felt like a sacrifice, I knew what we needed and what we didn’t and I knew what we had money for and what we didn’t and it was fine. But, really from almost the day we got back in the states I found myself constantly wanting things – really wanting things. It started with a purse. I had used the same purse for about a year and it had stains all over it and being in New York I started to notice everyone else’s nice purses and wanted a purse. Soon I bought a purse – I justified it to myself by telling myself it was on sale and it was just fine for me to have 2 purses. But, really the next thing I knew my list of things that I wanted, the had-to-have-kind-of-wanted, was miles long – it included new cloths, new shoes, new books (oh, the books…), a new camera lens, a flash for my camera, a camera case, an extra battery for my camera, expensive specialty food items that I couldn’t get in Prague, etc, etc, etc. I found myself buying things that I knew I didn’t need and I knew that we didn’t have the money for, but I did it anyway, all the while justifying and rationalizing (I’m good at those two) everything. I think that some of it was the fact that I knew I couldn’t get some of this stuff back in Prague so there was this desperation to possess while I could while I could. And I think some of it had to do with the fact that I was fairly depressed most of the time we were back in the states and so getting new things to take back to Prague with us or dreaming about getting new things was sort of like a shot of adrenaline. But, I think this change in my attitude also had to do with the environment we were in. Here in Prague we don’t go shopping much so I don’t really see what I don’t have and so I don’t really want it. The people we are with the most here are fairly down-to-earth type people and we often talk about things we can do to help others (when the focus shifts to helping other people who often literally have nothing it’s hard to continue to focus on yourself and your desires). We don’t watch tv here in Prague either so we aren’t bombarded by advertising. I guess it was just really eye opening for me – I never really thought that I was that influenced by advertizing or my environment until this trip when I noticed that my attitude changing so much from being satisfied to being envious and greedy – especially in places like New York, and California and Scottsdale (interesting enough Scottsdale was probably the worst of all those places for me). I didn’t like the attitude I had there of wanting and grasping, but I’ve found that it’s been a hard attitude to shake once put on. I’ve come home and found all sorts of things that I now want for our place here that I never thought I really needed before. Anyway, it was eye opening.

          Ok, so here’s another thought I had (and I think I’ll close with this one even though there are many more rambling thoughts on the topic in my head)… So, last night we were talking about envy, and lust, and greed, and that deep human desire to have and possess more and more. Which lead us to talk about consumerism a little and about how this desire to have drives people to do different things, many of which are bad. We were talking about how these desires (envy, greed, etc) were sin and lead to sin but then someone made the point that sometimes this desire can even lead people to do good things or create good things and advance society so they were saying we can’t just totally get rid of these desires because then what would drive society forward. I’m sure there are many things you can say in response to this (and many things were said) but I was thinking what if it wasn’t so much that we got rid of these destructive desires within us as it was that we REPLACED them with another desire – the desire to help others, to envy (is that the right word) after their needs instead of our own – what if instead of constantly seeking things for ourselves we were constantly seeking things for others. What if instead of saying “I really want this/need this” we started saying “Oh, I know that so-and-so would really want this/need this”. What if instead of envying after a better life for ourselves we envied after a better life for our neighbor, or the widowed, or orphaned, or homeless. What if we morphed that natural human desire to possess and have into a desire for the other to possess and have? Yes, it’s sort of counter intuitive and goes against some of our natural instinct – but it’s that sort of the system that Jesus set up when he gave us the command to Love God and LOVE PEOPLE? Isn’t that sort of what the early church looked like when “there were no needy persons among them” and “no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own”? …. I don’t know… those were just some of my thoughts.

 

Rejoicing in the journey –
Beth Stedman

Photograph by Beth Stedman

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Selfishness…some thoughts and questions

So, Saturday night my husband and I had an interesting conversation about selfishness… It was sort of a random conversation. It started out being a conversation about politics (my husband is a libertarian and very animate about wanting freedom and not wanting to be told what to do), then the conversation morphed into talking about freedom (freedom is one of my husband’s highest values and I’m not really sure that it is really all it’s cracked up to be – he calls me a communist, I tell him he’s selfish) and the conversation morphed again to talking about selfishness.

Basically the long and short of it was that my husband was saying how no one really does anything from purely selfless motives – we do things because of how they benefit us – he even pointed out that God seems to know this and plays to it by setting up a system in which the good are rewarded (thus giving a selfish incentive to do good) and the evil are punished (thus giving a selfish incentive not to do evil). He even went so far as to say that my choosing to love and follow God is selfish because “we love God, because He first loved us” – we love him selfishly for what he has done for us – Loved us. My husband has made this argument before and every time I try to come up with an example of a purely selfless act he ends up showing me how really it is selfish. It’s a strange argument we have every now and then. This time I got him to admit that there are some (though they may be rare) acts that are really selfless. But, this time though Bryan went a step farther after that — basically saying that selfishness isn’t bad – or at least that maybe some forms of selfishness aren’t bad. He asked why God created us and when I responded with “to bring himself glory” Bryan responded with “well, isn’t that a selfish reason”. I was stumped a bit. He went on to say that maybe there are different forms of selfishness – some being alright or even good – like when God who deserves glory desires glory for himself. Maybe we only have one word for selfishness but there should be multiple words for the idea. I was starting to think that maybe he was right that maybe selfishness when it leads to the pure, the true, the good isn’t a bad thing. But, I just couldn’t really accept it – I mean there is so much in the scriptures about dying to self and being self sacrificing and being a slave to God instead of a slave to self that I just couldn’t believe that self and selfishness isn’t as bad as I’ve always made it out to be.

It was about this point in the conversation that we both were too tired to finish and changed the subject – I sort of wish we had stuck with it a bit longer and hashed it out more, oh well.

Then at church yesterday I was really noticing how self-centered all the songs were – it was all about what God can, has, does do for ME. And it got me thinking about the conversation from the night before. Have we as Americans who value our freedom and independence and self above all else lost something about what it means to selflessly follow God? Or is Bryan right is there a place for selfishness even in our religion – can it sometimes be a helpful motivator to drive people towards God and towards the good? I tend to agree more with the first statement but it’s got me thinking, none the less, so I thought I’d share J

Rejoicing in the journey –
Beth Stedman

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