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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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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