The book, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, is one of the most polarized children’s books ever published. The message changes depending on the consideration of the reader. The author claims the book has no message. Silverstein was repeatedly asked to defend the book and is quoted as saying, “It’s about a boy and a tree, one gives the other takes.”
Every so often, someone writes a scathing piece about the book calling it a cautionary tale of abuse, dysfunction, and codependence. I understand, because it’s uncomfortable to watch the boy do nothing but take while the tree does nothing but give; but instead of focusing on how the boy could change to be more giving, people tend to focus on how the tree should be less giving and have stronger boundaries (borders, walls). This is a particularly interesting perspective around the holiday season and during these tumultuous social and political times.
While the book begs the question of some, “Why is this tree allowing herself to used?” For others it asks, “How different might the world look if everyone became more giving instead of less?”
Whenever I hear someone condemn the book or claim it should be banned and refuse to read it to their children, I can’t help but feel a little bruised, because even though I can be the Queen Bee of setting boundaries, I have also been called The Giving Tree. Full disclosure: I’ve planted my roots in a forest of giving trees, so I may be guilty merely by association. But truth be told, as much as I have given to others, much more has been given unto me.
Before my husband, I had two serious relationships that I left due to geographical changes. Each of these people whom I loved gave me a parting gift at the end of our relationship (apparently, back in the day, a token of consolation was a thing in amicable breakups). Unbeknownst to either of them, they gave me the exact same gift with nearly identical inscriptions: A copy of the book The Giving Tree, where they wrote that I was the giving tree in their lives. This experience was a defining moment in my life. I had to ask myself, “Did they see me as a pushover or as someone with a genuine giving spirit?” I, the one who is known for being as blunt as she is kind, the one who has zero qualms about making her wants and needs known, the one with an honorary Ph.D. in self-care because she knows how to say “No” and does so, was still seen as The Giving Tree.
Cognitive dissonance, that’s who!
IF The Giving Tree is about women without boundaries, women seen as doormats who get walked all over, why has someone with such strong boundaries repeatedly been told that she is The Giving Tree?
We are more than one-dimensional characters in a book. As Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” We can have boundaries and still be a giving tree but it requires a rejection of seeing the world in black and white and turning instead to a view with shades of nuance.
Is it possible that we’ve become so preoccupied with drawing lines that separate what’s mine from yours that we no longer recognize the merit of giving magnanimously? Has our pervading social need to feel safe and protected gotten in the way of our collective ability to be inspired by acts of benevolence?
Giving with boundaries requires self-awareness of our own expectations and motives, and an understanding of who we give to, who asks us to give, and why giving is necessary.
The key element I feel people miss when they harshly judge The Giving Tree, is that the story of the tree and the boy is not a relationship between equals requiring reciprocity. It’s a relationship between one who had and was willing to give, and one who needed and was able to receive.
Unconditional Love or Unconditional Greed?
The Giving Tree may be both a story of unconditional greed and unconditional love. If we focus on the greed, the story constricts and ends, and we walk away with little more than anger in return. If however, we focus on the unconditional love, the story expands and begins, and we walk away with an open heart inspired to be more giving and loving to ourself and others.
To focus on love, we have to define what love is and what love is not. Now, I won’t even feign the authority to define what Dickinson, Shakespeare, and all the Brontë Sisters combined could not agree upon. Nor will I pontificate on the various types of love: romantic, parental, or humanitarian. I will, however, distill in plain terms, what love is and what it is not, for simplicity sake.
For many people, the word “love” is synonymous with the word “need.” When they say, “I love you,” they are really saying, “I need you.” It’s a missed opportunity to know true love by defining and misappropriating it as need. Love. Is. Not. Need.
Love is the intense expression of deep caring for another being. Unconditional love is a desire to create betterment for another, without a direct benefit to the self in the process. For me, the only love is unconditional love. I don’t have to know you, trust you, understand you, or even like you in order to love you, because it’s human nature to care, and it’s my personal nature to care deeply.
The act of loving you, is about me.
How much I relish loving you, is about you and all the groovy swirls of color that make you- you.
Unconditional love is not a contract; it’s a conscious choice, a verb, an act of loving with mindfulness. I don’t feel indebted to another for their love of me, just as I don’t expect others to feel indebted to me for my love of them. Accepting or giving love is not the act of surrendering to the handcuffs of obligation. It’s the act of holding water in our hands and feeling that moment of fullness before it flows elsewhere.
Unfortunately, unconditional love is rarely seen beyond relationships between parent and child, human and pet, or the devotion of a teacher to her student. Unconditional love has gotten a bad rap in the age of self because it’s seen as a form of love that lacks boundaries, and that’s just not accurate. Unconditional love does not mean unconditional acceptance of poor behavior. It means an ability to love beyond the judgement of behavior (while dealing with the behavior accordingly through, drum roll please… Boundaries). Some people are so toxic, chaotic, and dysfunctional that I can only love them from the nosebleed section of my life; for my love may be unconditional, but my boundaries are not.
A boundary begins at the point of our personal discomfort. It’s there to prevent us from doing what we don’t want to do (i.e. engage with people who mistreat us). It’s not an invisible line other people are supposed to see and not cross. It’s a clear marker we create for ourselves, a line we choose not to cross to manage our vulnerabilities and protect our own comfort, to stop us from saying “yes” when we want to say “no.”
At any point, the tree could have said, “No” to the boy. He likely would have gone to another tree to get his needs met. The tree would have likely given to another boy, to get her needs met. The boy’s needs were to have the tree’s parts. The tree’s needs were to feel she had parts of value to give and someone to give them to. The tree was lonely when the boy was gone, and she felt a sense of connection when the boy was there to receive what the tree had to offer.
The tree wasn’t unhappy because the boy was taking that which she wished to keep for herself or give to another. The tree was unhappy during the times when she felt she had nothing to give and no one to give to, because giving is a satisfying act of connection. It feels good to give, it’s part of our inherent human purpose. We all give through the work we do to survive. We all have a desire to feel a sense of importance and value. We feel most sad when we feel least worthy, and many people feel most worthy when they are able to give of their time, money, knowledge, wit, services, art, skill, space, support or even empathy.
The gift of receiving is for the receiver.
Selfish, Self-Sacrifice or Selfless?
We can all be selfish and there are even books and programs that support selfishness as a form of self-care or self-reliance. I define selfish in general as a lack of consideration of others, and I define it specifically as the act of placing a personal want over someone else’s need. When we as humans, do what humans do: confuse our wants as needs, selfishness ensues.
My crosswalk boundary for giving unconditionally starts with the green light of doing my best to not be selfish, just to the point of the yellow light of being selfless, and stops before crossing into the red light of being self-sacrificing. Usually. Sometimes I miss the mark and either I, or another gets hurt in the process.
Plain and Simple:
the less aware, the less we care.
We are taught that we can’t give so much away that there’s nothing left for ourselves, but what did the tree give to the boy that she could have used herself? Nothing. She couldn’t eat her own apples or swing from her own branches. She kept what she needed to survive, her roots, and she gave the rest away because it was hers to give.
Life is Impermanence. Nothing lasts forever. If we’re lucky, we all die like the tree, as nothing more than stumps, because it means we gave our all to life, “left it all on the field,” so to speak. People who save the fancy candle for a special occasion often find it melted in the attic unused.
The tree wasn’t sacrificing itself for the boy, but it was being selfless; and there is a difference. Self-sacrificing is to give up our eyes when we still need them. Selfless giving is to donate our eyes when we die because what’s the point in being buried with our organs if someone living can use them? The tree did not give away anything it needed to survive, it gave to survive, to fulfill its purpose.
My boundary is to follow the “KISS rule” as much as possible
And don’t keep that which you’re not using.
The way we give to others with boundaries is to include ourselves among the “others” we give to. Unconditional love for others is nurtured by our ability to love ourself unconditionally: to offer ourselves and others grace, self-compassion, self-care, and self-awareness. So you see, even in the age of “self” it’s possible to give to others.
Who Deserves to Receive?
Should we not give to those in need, even if we have it to give, just because they can’t or won’t give back to us?
Even people like me, who are not religious, have been raised with religious lessons through cultural standards and expectations. From the Bible we are taught: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” However, the Bible also says, “Ask and you shall receive.” Furthermore, the Bible teaches, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Not “Give us this day, all the bread we will ever need; and if there is any left over, we will throw some crumbs to the homeless, in your name, we pray, amen.”
Anne Frank is quoted as saying, “No one has ever become poor by giving.” And yet the most popularized setting for films and television shows is often Southern California with its beaches lined with opulent (often empty) homes, juxtaposed with an enormous homeless population living in cardboard boxes and tents. People are obviously afraid of becoming poor if they give what they have in excess, either possession or pride, if they can’t give to someone in need that which they themself are not even using, because well… boundaries.
Without great acts of charity and altruism, our world is very dark. We live in an inequitable society. Sure,
we can try and teach every man how to fish; but some men are hundreds of miles away from the nearest fishing source which is filled with contaminated water and requires a license for which the man doesn’t qualify.
There will always be people in need and there will always be people who have more than they need.
The gift of giving is touching the intangible, yet palpable sense of the vulnerable interdependence of humanity. When we see ourselves as connected, the act of giving to others becomes an act of giving to ourselves.
Why Don’t More People Give?
Perhaps people read The Giving Tree as a projection of how they feel and who they identify with the most. Giving, for many people, is an act of vulnerability, especially if they view giving as an act of quid pro quo. For those who view giving as a way of life, without expectation for anything in return, the book can be a source of validation.
The reason The Giving Tree is beloved and resonates with the many people it does, is because there is no greater power in the world than the power to elevate through the gift of giving and supporting another. We are not here to be selfishly used by others – but we are here to be “used up” by life. It’s only a sacrifice if it exceeds our purpose, and what’s the purpose of life if not to give?
The book has been used as a metaphor for the greed of capitalism, to the handouts of the welfare system. Depending on how you view the book, either can be true. Perception is almost everything, truth plays a part as well. The trick is discerning when truth is purely perception and when it’s not.
Teaching Self-Reliance Through Acts of Kindness
My friend Amber taught me a valuable lesson about our skewed collective perception around the perils of giving. Amber and I were both born with genetic abnormalities which pre-determined that we might have a shortened life expectancy. One afternoon while our daughters were playing, we had a heartfelt discussion about how we were processing the painful awareness of possibly being torn from our children too soon. We shared with each other what we wanted to most urgently teach them now, in case we wouldn’t be around to do so later.
Amber noticed that I was very focused on teaching my daughter self-reliance. After our girls made themselves something to eat in the kitchen, I wanted them to clean up before they went back to play. Amber smiled, respecting my parental request, and in the sweet way she had of teaching others without preaching, she taught through story that there is more than one way to teach self-reliance. We can force people to do things for themselves or we teach them how to give to themselves and others, by giving to them, particularly, when they are most in want or need.
Amber told me that whenever her daughter went into the kitchen to make herself a sandwich, that she or her husband would clean up afterward and not make their daughter come back to do so. In fact, they would often make the sandwich for her and place it near her when she was highly absorbed in a video game, because the lesson she wanted most to teach her child, was kindness.
Amber knew she had succeeded when the day came that her daughter, unprompted, returned the favor. Amber was stuck on the phone in front of her computer for hours working on a problem and unable to break for dinner. Her thoughtful daughter came in quietly, without interrupting her mother’s phone call and silently set down a sandwich she had made just for her mom, placing it next to her computer, without pomp or circumstance. Without being “taught” or told how to behave, her daughter learned through the example her mother had so often given to her on how to give to another when they are most in want or need.
We Get What We Give
For as many years as children are highly dependent on their parents, there often comes a time in old age when the parents become highly dependent on their children. Our roles reverse and the patience, care, mercy, grace, and kindness we bestow upon others when they are most in need might be returned to us later in life when we are most in need.
We Teach By the Example of How We Live
Amber was able to teach her daughter both self-reliance and kindness by simple demonstration. She sprouted the seeds of giving through watering her daughter with generosity and thoughtful considerations. Often, although not always, the reverse can also be true: if the weeds of selfishness in parents aren’t regularly pulled and pruned why should we expect any different from their offspring?
Yes, The Giving Tree: is a cautionary tale of what can happen to someone with no boundaries; it’s also a celebration of what it means to love big, deep, whole and unconditionally. We don’t have to choose sides. We can love unconditionally and still have boundaries by holding the duality of both boundaries and a boundless heart; it’s called integration.
How To Not Feel Taken Advantage Of
People can be disappointing, especially when we expect them not to be. Sometimes an expectation to receive something from someone else is an indication that we are not giving enough to ourselves. When we expect others to give more than they are capable of giving, we can become hardened and resentful and begin to question, “Who needs other people anyway?”
One way to avoid the trapping of codependency is to become more independent. It can be empowering to turn toward ourselves to have our needs met. The goal, however, is not a reactionary independence of “I’ll show them,” as this can lead the gamut of negativity from self-pity to self-obsession and a lack of thoughtful consideration for others.
The endgame is neither fierce independence, nor clingy codependence, but rather humble interdependence.
When we are capable of taking care of our needs, we can more easily allow others in for some of our wants. We can feel safe enough to soften the hard and guarded edges of protection in order to let someone else in to experience what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. It can feel incredibly circle-of-life-affirming to allow ourselves to receive care from another, especially if we are used to being a caregiver to others.
The Duality of Having Boundaries with A Boundless Heart
How do we get to where we want to be? How do we hold the paradox that relationships of equality are based on agreements of commitment and often require boundaries to maintain reciprocity; with the knowledge that to truly give (a gift) with a boundless heart, is to not expect anything back in return? How can we give and not feel used when others don’t give back?
1. Define the nature of the relationship. (Does this person have the resources to give back equally?)
2. Differentiate the act of giving as either gift (no strings attached) or investment (strings attached). The choice is yours but it is a choice that’s better made with intention before the act of giving.
3. Be brave enough to state your expectations, or generous enough to give without expectation.
4. Communicate clearly, to the other person, what your desires and expectations may be.
If we are giving in order to receive, that’s not a gift, that’s an investment. Human beings as individual entities are not investments. Yet, relationships are often contracts which are in effect investments, and a successful investment requires a successful return. In order to have a contract, you have to communicate your expectations, negotiate to have your needs met. That means you must be honest with yourself about what you want to receive in exchange for what you give. If you give under the guise of a gift, it’s not fair to have invisible strings of expectation attached. Communication and boundaries make clear for both the giver and the receiver the difference between what is “gift,” and what is “investment.”
Investment: “I am giving you money specifically for music lessons with the expectation that you will learn how to play an instrument.”
Gift: “I am giving you money to spend as you see fit.”
We all give and take. The boy took and it was never enough. The tree gave; and as the book states, “and the tree was happy.” The lesson of the book may not be that the tree gave too much, but that the boy gave too little.
The world needs more giving trees, not less.
I dedicate this story to my friend Amber Stipicevich, a giving tree who graced this earth for 40 years and is deeply missed by all who knew and loved her.
Sage Justice is an award-winning playwright, freelance writer and soon to be author. She wants to bequeath to you this message: “Don’t be afraid to piss people off. Have the morale courage to speak your truth. Be you with boldness not trepidation. Change the world, that’s why you are here! Ms. Justice feels that her rich, dementedly enchanted experiences have afforded her the wisdom, chutzpah, and station in life to share this secret with you: life is too short to play for applause, fleeting popularity and fickle approval when you can play to provoke thoughts and feelings as vehicles for change instead and make someone laugh at themselves in the process. www.Sage-Living.org