The Beauty and Tragedy of Generosity

     Now that my children are not really children any longer, but young men on the edge of adulthood with gaining responsibility and independence, along with inevitable heartaches, disappointments and failures and hopes for achievements, success and happiness, I wonder if they might view things differently from the manner in which they saw life when they were young and innocent, when they had an excuse to think and behave naively or selfishly. But first, let me explain where I am coming from and where I am going here as I reflect on another classic children’s story that once again creatively captures aspects of human nature that resonate with so many of us.

     In Shel Silverstein’s “ The Giving Tree”, readers follow along on the daily escapades of a little boy who is loved by a tree. When he is young and innocent, the boy gathers her leaves for crowns, climbs her trunk , swings on her branches and eats her apples.  The boy and the tree play games and bring comfort, joy and love to one another. But as always, time intervenes and the boy gets older and the tree spends more time alone.

     Eventually, after several years, the boy returns to the tree asking for “money” and the tree gives her apples to him to sell, with the hope this will make him feel happy again. Over time, with each of the boy’s rare visits the tree gives up more of herself; her branches so that he can have a home and finally, her trunk so that he could sail away in a boat.  At the end of the story- the boy, as an old man, comes back for a final visit and the tree tells him she is sorry but she has nothing left but a stump.  The boy tells the tree he doesn’t need much anymore, just a quiet place to sit and rest.  Of course, the tree offers herself,- the last of herself, to him; “…well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest”.  And the boy did and the tree was happy again.

     When I read this story to my four young children at night before bed or in the backyard as we sprawled across our picnic blanket- tucked between piles of picture and early reader books, I saw only the beauty of generosity that the tree gave to the boy.  I believed the tree was genuinely happy to give up all that she had for the boy despite his growing selfishness and his inability to recognize the tree’s sacrifices for him.  I viewed the book as a beautiful story of love and the connections formed through loving relationships.

     However, now as an older adult with growing children, who are not so much children any more, I find myself occasionally identifying with the tree in a different way.  Although my boys do not mean anything by it, they tend, at times,  to possess the typical “selfishness” that all adolescents/ young adults seem to perpetuate. The maternal rewards I received when my boys were small have slowly changed shape, absorbing the parenting stress that comes with handling unruly school behaviors and academic struggles, financial pressures, health challenges and other parenting obligations and sacrifices.  Of course I still feel rewarded while I watch each one of them grow into young men as they learn the value of attaining goals, working hard, treating others well and making good, sound decisions, but it has become more work than play at times and a bit one- sided, rather than the steady two- way unconditional display of affection we once sustained.

     And like the tree in Silverstein’s story, I sometimes find myself feeling like an old dried up stump who has given away all her apples, leaves, branches and trunk for loneliness, “financial drain”, and always for love.

     Recently, I read a related, reflective article titled “ The uncomfortable truth in THE GIVING TREE”, written by Elissa Strauss.  In her article, she refers to the boy in the story as a “narcissistic taker and the tree as the compulsive enabler.”  Are most of us mothers compulsive enablers if it means making sacrifices and giving up parts of ourselves for our children, or for those we love?  Are most children considered to be narcissistic by taking and taking, without recognizing the giver’s sacrifice?  Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

     In a simply written story in less than 625 words, the author of the Giving Tree effectively illustrates to readers the true life sacrifices of love.   Whether one views the story as “a parable about the beauty of generosity, and the power of giving to forge connection between two people” or conversely , as an “irresponsible tale that glorifies maternal selfishness, even as the maternal figure is destroyed in the process”, the story does convey a glaring message of love with its associated surrender and forfeitures. Is generosity to this degree an act of beauty or is it an act of tragedy? 

     I believe it is what all mothers (or parents) are meant to do, and therefore; in my view, the Giving Tree conveys the beauty of generosity, while the tragedy is in not understanding that love is about sacrifice and giving of oneself.

     I like to think the boy, as a grown man, finally understood and appreciated that in the end, and knowing that is what ultimately made the tree most happy.

Sources:

Silverstein, Shel, The Giving Tree, (1964), Harper and Row

Strauss, Elissa, The Uncomfortable Truth in The Giving Tree, (10/17/14), The Week Publication

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