SPidge Tales

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Giving Tree

"A genuine anteater,"
The pet man told me dad.
Turned out, it was an aunt eater,
And now my uncle's mad!
Shel Silverstein

As I child, I really liked to read the poems of Shel Silverstein, especially the ones from Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. My favorites include The Anteater, The Unicorn, and a couple poems whose titles I cannot think of, particularly the one about the boy who keeps eating and eating until he eats the whole world and the whole universe until there is nothing left but himself, and the one about the boy who goes through a litany of illnesses and imperilments in an attempt to get out of going to school until he finds out that it is the weekend, and says “what’d you say? It’s Saturday?! Goodbye, I’m going out to play!”

Silverstein’s beloved classic is The Giving Tree (http://www.banned-width.com/shel/works/giving.html). The story is well known. We have the boy who comes to play and swing on the giving tree who loves the boy. The tree is happy that she can give the boy what he pleases. As the boy grows older, he asks more of the tree. He takes the tree’s apples, leaves, and twigs to sell for money. The boy will need a house, and takes up the tree’s offer to cut off her branches to build with. The boy would come back yet again, with sadness in his eyes, cutting down the tree’s trunk to build a boat and sail away. The boy returns as an old man and uses the tree, now just a stump, to sit on and rest. The tree is always happy when giving of herself to the boy.

On the surface level, themes of selfless love jump out at us. Is the giving tree an allegory for Christ, who selflessly sacrifices his life out of love? Is the giving tree an ideal parent, looking out for and taking care of his child? I always looked on the story admiringly and fondly until I came upon a symposium on The Giving Tree in First Things Journal (http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9501/articles/givingtree.html). Some issues were brought to light that I never thought of before.

The tree is always happy when she gives of herself to help the boy. But, the boy is never happy or satisfied. He is always coming back to the tree, needing more. Is this really a healthy relationship? It appears to be an abusive one, the boy always taking, and the tree giving and getting nothing in return. It certainly does not appear to be a fair relationship. The giving tree does not seem to be a good parent either. A good parent does not give a child everything he wants. A good parent takes time to reprimand, as well. And, if the giving tree is a metaphor for God, isn’t God supposed to be the ideal parent? Jesus does call him Father, doesn’t He?

This selfless love thing is the hardest thing about God to comprehend. A God who is all powerful and creates the world? Yes, that makes sense. Great minds such as The Philosopher, Aristotle, have come to rationalize this idea, as well as some of the greats of the Enlightenment, including the Deist Thomas Jefferson, probably the most brilliant thinker in American history. And, a God who loves us like a great parent? It’s not too hard to stretch past the Divine Watch-Winder of Deism to see God as a Father who loves us. But, any good father, even one who loves, has a breaking point where he says “enough is enough.” Sometimes you have to cut your loses. To love? Yes, that is reasonable. But to love ceaselessly, even with nothing in return? That is the hardest to understand or comprehend. How can anyone keep loving someone with no love returned and not go crazy? How can someone really be happy with that predicament? Yeah, I know that you cannot be happy or find love without giving it out; you can’t have true friendship if you don’t first be a friend to others. But, the “others” have a part to play, too. It’s not enough to be a friend to experience true friendship. You need others to be your friend too. I find it hard to see how the tree is happy. Maybe, if the boy had grown as a person, the tree could be happy even receiving nothing in return. But, the boy does not seem to have changed at all. It’s the same old using boy. Thomas Merton hits upon this point better than I do:

A happiness that is sought for ourselves alone can never be found: for a happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy. . . .

Yet there can never be happiness in compulsion. It is not enough for love to be shared: it must be shared freely. That is to say it must be given, not merely taken. Unselfish love that is poured out upon a selfish object does not bring perfect happiness: not because love requires a return or a reward for loving, but because it rests in the happiness of the beloved. And if the one loved receives love selfishly, the love is not satisfied. He sees that his love has failed to make the beloved happy. It has not awakened his capacity for unselfish love. . .

The gift of love is the gift of the power and the capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.
Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

Maybe I am taking a children’s story too seriously. After all, it is a children’s story. You can read it in a couple minutes. There is not much room for Silverstein to go into literary detail. But, the only way to look fondly on the tree is to see the tree as God. Only God can give of Himself completely without needing any love in return (Our happiness may be tied to our loving God, but this is not for God’s sake or because God needs it. It is solely because God created us such that we need to love God to be happy). And, I think we see the dark side of free will at play. God is the lover from the Song of Songs, always pursuing us, his beloved, asking for us to return our love to Him. There is the catch, though. Love cannot be compelled. Yet, God has created us for Himself. We cannot be truly happy apart from He who gave us life. Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee. The boy in The Giving Tree is still not ready to give of himself to the tree. In the end, he remains sad and unfulfilled. Dare I say that The Giving Tree is a story of a soul’s descent into Hell?

I could be entirely wrong. There are many possible readings of this story. Please, feel free to share and add your thoughts.


Blogger Tim Simard said...

Not so much a thought on the giving tree, but a more a memory of Mr. Silverstein. I bumped into him, literally, at a big band concert on Martha's Vineyard (pronounced Maaaatha's Vinyud) when I was 16. It was during the world famous Illumination Night when all the ginger bread houses in Oak Bluffs decorate their houses with decorations and creative lights. My uncle was the conductor of the band in the center of the village and I was watching the show and not what was going on around me. I took a direct hit to ole' Shel. He was pleasant after I said excuse me, but I did not know who he was. Later, I figured out who he was when a little girl walked up to him, smiling and gave him a big hug. It was really touching. He wasn't a jerk at all, just a kind old man. Apparently, he had a house not too far from my Aunt and Uncle's in the small town. As I understand it, he died a short time later, so I was glad to have my Shel Silverstein experience. That was also the same night that my brother, in an effort to point the way back to my Aunt and Uncle's house, almost clothes-lined Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. His finger came within two inches of gouging out Sam the Bartender's eye. Thankfully, tragedy was avoided!

11:12 AM  

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