For the longest time, I wondered how a cute little children’s book that I’d always held dear could evoke such strong and polarizing emotions in adults. And yet, if my experience is representative of the whole – and I have reason to suspect it is – that’s precisely the case with Shel Silverstein’s 1964 classic, The Giving Tree. Trust me, you’ll find very few readers in the gray area on this one. People either “love it” or they “hate it”, but in both instances they do so with great passion. And, I think I finally understand why: It’s the juxtaposition of the image above and the 5 words that accompany it – “and the tree was happy.” I’ve actually gotten into some spirited discussions with “the haters” over the years and most thoroughly enjoy the book right up to the time that the no-longer-so-little-boy becomes a selfish ingrate, who is indifferent to the tree’s existence – save for the extent to which he might be able to use the tree to acquire the material things and enhance the relationships he grows to covet.
But, it’s the tree’s response to the growing boy’s ingratitude that irks “the haters” the most. You see, in spite of her friend’s cold indifference, the tree continues to give – and to love – first urging the boy to sell the entirety of her harvest of apples, then insisting that he strip her of her very branches and use them to build a home and, finally, donating her trunk so that he can build a boat and sail away – and, hopefully/ finally/maybe be happy! Eventually, approaching death’s doorstep, the boy returns for what will likely be his final visit. To “the haters” it’s what happens next that is most unsettling: Despite having every reason to turn her back on her childhood friend and already having given him her leaves, branches, apples and trunk, the tree gladly offers all that she has left (i.e., her stump) as a place for her bone-weary friend to sit and rest. Indeed, “the haters” are convinced that had her friend needed to grind her stump, the tree likely would have complied. In my mind (and that of “the lovers”) there is no “likely” about it!
I have no doubt Silverstein chose that image and those 5 words for a reason, namely to illustrate the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of a giver’s heart. His fictional tree is intended to remind all of us that, at the end of the day, our true beauty, our self-worth and the fullness of our life, indeed our happiness, is not dependent on how we look, what we possess or how we compare, physically or otherwise, to those around us, but rather the extent to which we empty ourselves in serving and loving others. The fact is: Silverstein’s heroine could have been the most magnificent apple tree in the orchard. Its trunk could have been sturdy and straight – perfect for climbing. Its branches could have been especially well-proportioned and strong, perfect for swinging. Its leaves could have been lush, exquisitely defined and brightly colored, perfect for weaving into a crown. Its fruit could have been plentiful and delicious, ideal for a mid-afternoon snack. Its canopy could have cast a broad net of shade, a welcome respite from the hot summer sun.
And yet, without the ability to share – lovingly, selflessly, unhesitatingly, whole-heartedly, unconditionally – all that it had to give with the boy and without the boy’s corresponding willingness to accept and embrace those gifts, even if it wasn’t always with an appropriately grateful and reciprocating heart, it would have been just another tree anonymously blowing in the wind, subjected to the vagaries of the elements of nature, destined, like all of the other trees in the forest, to live out its life, wither away, and die. As it was, however, the tree’s life was full and its joy abundant, albeit not in the “smiley face” way we’ve grown accustomed to seeing and experiencing happiness and not without its share of longing and heartache along the way. Why? Because the tree came to understand that selfless (okay, sacrificial!) giving and loving is the essence of Life. It’s also an integral (I would submit indispensable) part of what it means to be fully human in a world of thirsting hearts.
Silverstein makes it clear that it’s not always easy being the tree. She certainly had her share of sadness. But, in The End, she was happy – I promise!