In Defense of Giving Trees (and maybe jesus too.)

July 20, 2009

Schwenkler considers bad children books, and immediately chops down one of the pillars of my childhood:

The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. I guess that this is a pretty common target in these kinds of discussions, but damn is it ever deserved. Tree loves boy. Boy loves tree. Boy grows up. Boy exploits tree. Tree takes it all silently, growing less happy with each lonely year. Boy gets old, tree is a stump, boy sits on tree, no apologies. I mean, I get the point: the tree loves the boy. But heck, even Jesus was able to rise triumphant when all was said and done; couldn’t Silverstein have made the love at least a little more, you know, mutual? (Other questions: Why didn’t the tree’s apples grow back? And how did the boy build himself and his family a house out of branches?)

As sympathetic as my warped communitarian heart is to demands for mutuality, I think that the story’s lack of shared charity is actually its most powerful point.  It seems to me that the story’s complexity comes from the fact that love isn’t always mutual, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee interpersonal justice.  In fact, in some cases it can demand precisely the opposite: that we give until we have nothing left, and that the only compensation we can expect is the satisfaction from having done so. When I try to imagine what it must be like to raise a severely disabled child or deal with an addicted sibling or care for a mentally ill parent, this is the only understanding of love that can suffice… The love that gives until it is spent.

As I’m writing this I see that Millman has written a very insightful post in the same direction, so I won’t spend any words going places he’s already been, but I figure I should also mention this lovely piece by Kyle Cupp on the experience of being a father of an ancephaletic child and his sense of the divine in that struggle.  It’s definitely a better articulation of Silverstein’s take on love than I’m capable of giving, and one that think explains why it remains one of the better children’s books around.

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2 Responses to “In Defense of Giving Trees (and maybe jesus too.)”

  1. yesitsme said

    I disliked The Giving Tree when I first read it and felt the same when I went back and re-read it after several years. In fact, I found it positively repellent. Having read your piece, however, and being a decade older, I think I better understand the message, especially after having cared for an elderly parent with dementia for three years.

    There’s a paradox here. God loves and honors the legitimate needs of each person he created. After all, he placed those needs within us in the first place. But sometimes what’s needed for the sake of another is self-abnegation, the emptying out of self. The father of the anencephalic child is living this out daily. It is the message of the cross.

    Having said that, I do think there’s another side to the book, one that’s grounded in psychology. The tree didn’t have any choice in the matter, but human beings do. The person who loves deeply must also love him/herself. Self care is the clumsy psych term for it, but it can include setting reasonable limits on caring for that other person’s needs, resting and rejuvenating on a regular basis, asking for outside help when appropriate, and even commonplace habits like getting enough sleep and exercise. In a way, it’s befriending your own needy little self as if you were an outside caregiver.

    You only have to listen to the elderly wife of an alcoholic talk about her marriage experience to understand that reality. Supporting him, covering for his lapses, watching him drink up the paycheck, dealing with drunken rages and beatings–fifty years ago these were a common definition of self-giving love. (Speaking as a Catholic, it was doubly true back then, in part because divorce was seen as a terrible sin.) These days it’s defined as–yes, I hate the word, too–enabling. The point is, in the long term, that kind of self-giving truly doesn’t help.

    All of this doesn’t have the resonance and power of the more profound kind of giving, but I think it qualifies as a small-t truth. And I wonder if that isn’t Silverstein’s point.

  2. […] Millman and H.C. Johns, on the other hand, dissent from my verdict, and I appreciate the points they’re making. It seems […]

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