On Humility and Roots
Updated: May 28, 2020
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein has always been one of my favorite books. I love the simple illustrations paired with the way Silverstein tells the story of the relationship between a tree and a boy. When the boy is young he plays with the tree, swinging from her branches and napping under her shade. This makes the tree happy. As the boy grows older, he doesn’t want to simply play and eat apples anymore, he wants money and a house and a boat to sail away. The tree gives all of herself to the boy, until she is just a stump that he rests on in his old age. It is a story of unconditional generosity and as a children’s book, in many ways it mirrors a parent’s willingness to do anything to bring their child joy.
However, it is obvious, especially to older audiences, that the boy is wildly ungrateful to the tree. He takes and takes while she gives and gives and never once thanks her, even as she is reduced to a stump, who the boy-now-man literally sits on.
This has garnered criticism, especially as the tree in the story is given female pronouns. As the story has been revisited by many it appears to be a free pass to take advantage of grand generosity, especially at the hands of women. It encourages selfishness and codependency. I’ve discussed this book with different women who have struggled with the morality of the formerly beloved story.
I have struggled too. As a Christian who aims to live in a way that mimics the life of Jesus Christ, I try to recognize the impermanence of most things, including myself, and value the way people feel and how I contribute to that over my wants and desires. Through this lens, being extravagantly generous is the right thing to do. The apples and branches of the tree are impermanent. (I should mention that environmental activists have also raised concerns with the boy’s reckless treatment of nature, and if we view his actions purely as towards a tree with no assigned humanity, I must agree with the criticism of his unsustainable practices) Giving these things to the boy makes the tree happy, because it makes the boy happy.
But sometimes, this calling to live for others conflicts with my effort to not be run over or taken advantage of by those who run through the world recklessly or selfishly. Of course, I can’t control their thoughts or actions, but I don’t want myself or other women to be victims of a system which historically oppresses those who don’t or can’t assert themselves. (Privilege check: I have a lot of it as a cisgendered white woman, and I know that my struggles with gender equity are among the least of those who have had to demand their equality. I strive to work in a way that does not allow me to exist peacefully in oppressive systems but breaks them down entirely.)
My struggle between these seemingly conflicting values came up recently in a book club led by LEAF campus minister, Julie Tonnesen, on Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey. In discussing the value of humility, I raised my concern that I want to “walk humbly with my God” as the Bible says, but I struggle with how I can do that and not be taken advantage of by a world that might not be so gracious. It’s no secret that, as critics of The Giving Tree recognize, societal gender roles often expect women to give thanklessly. How do I live with humility and demand equality? Julie offered perspective on the word “humility,” sharing that it comes from a word meaning “grounded” or “from the earth.” This allowed me to see humility as a personal choice that roots me in the work I do for myself and others, not as something forced upon me by expectations. By living this way, I can be intentional about the ways I give myself and my time to things.
I’m a big believer that intentionality matters. I think that we (myself included) are often too quick to judge and too slow to forgive without allowing people room for mistakes or considering where they’re coming from. Of course, like I said earlier, how people end up feeling as a result of our actions is incredibly important and we have to take responsibility for that, but I love Barack Obama’s words on “cancel culture.” He said in an interview last fall that, “If all you're doing is casting stones, you're probably not going to get that far...The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”
I think that when we rush to label something as good or bad, right or wrong, we don’t consider enough why it was done. It is much more constructive to say, “hey, I don’t think that had the intended effect that you wanted” than to “cancel” someone. But to say that, we have to really hear someone’s story and get to know their heart, and the world becomes more complicated. It’s why we are quick to defend people we love, we believe in the goodness of their intentions. Imagine if we gave everyone that grace. We’d have to get diggin’ at some roots. Stir up some dust, find our humility.
So in my quest to defend the story I love, I went digging for the intention behind The Giving Tree. Silverstein’s website says that the story of The Giving Tree is “an affective interpretation of the gift of giving and a serene acceptance of another’s capacity to love in return.” Suggesting that, to appreciate the story, we have to come to terms with giving without receiving gratitude. Giving to create joy, peace. But Silverstein himself (who had to be heavily convinced to ever write for children, which kind of makes some of his poetry make a lot more sense) said that it’s just about a relationship, a boy and a tree, and that “it has a pretty sad ending.” So I wonder, and maybe so do others who love the story for the way it teaches generosity but is also honest about the harshness of the world: can we teach goodness from a sad story? Perhaps, with appreciation for the tree’s humility and some grace for the boy who doesn’t get it.