I once had a boyfriend who hated The Giving Tree.
Gasp. I know, right? Suffice it to say, it didn’t last. I automatically started to hate him and the fact that he hated it. Okay, I’m joking. That last part didn’t actually happen. All kidding aside, when I think about it, and while I still don’t “hate” The Giving Tree, I do think it’s worth a more critical eye; it’s worth a second look.
For those of who haven’t read The Giving Tree (full text) in a while, it’s a wonderful children’s picture book about the relationship between a tree and boy, meanwhile posing important questions about what love truly is. The tree gives of itself; it gives of itself all the way until all she has left is her stump and her own roots, all because of the her immense care and love for the little boy. With every bit of the tree’s body, besides the roots and stump, the boy does a variety of things: he eats apples, builds a house, and even builds a boat so that he can sail far away–far away without even considering the tree.
Through one lens, one can admire the tree’s selflessness, similar to that of a mother’s. The tree gives everything she has in order to make the boy happy… because seeing the boy happy makes her happier than anything else in the world. Note: It was also a point of contention that the tree was gendered as “she.”
Through a parallel but differing lens, the boy can be seen as selfish, taking so much of somebody that cared for him so deeply, using her up to the point where she could give no more, to where she was of no use to anyone except as a seat–hardly a desirable or glorious way to be of “use” to another. Although, one could also argue further how beautiful the tree’s selflessness truly was–that her humility was so grand that not even she was beneath serving as someone else’s seat. Skeptics of the book, however, see this as a further manifestation the boy’s–or by this point, the man’s–selfishness.
But perhaps we can look at this classic children’s book through both lenses.
I think, at points, we’ve all been the boy, and we’ve all been the tree. We’ve all given of ourselves, and we’ve all taken selfishly of another. I know that, as a teacher, many times I give of myself, but through experience, I’ve learned to allow my students to give to me, as well. I’ve learned to lean on them when I’m feeling low and to rely on their inquiry and odd ways of thinking to make me a better thinker, myself. Not only does this help make sure that I am always learning and that I am being taken care of, but teaching my students that they can care for me, as well, allows them to feel the empowerment that comes with showing empathy and reciprocity.
While The Giving Tree is still my favorite book, I look at it differently now as an experienced teacher and growing adult. It reminds me to give, give, and give some more, because through this giving, we can find true and humble happiness.
But now… now when I think about it more… it also reminds me to care for myself.
Too often, we think that if we don’t love ourselves, or if we don’t care for our safety and well-being, it’s not really affecting anyone else. This is a farse. Neglecting to care for ourselves–neglecting to make sure that we are safe and well–has profound impacts on the people that we love.
Perhaps, if we truly want to love and care for the people around us, and perhaps if the tree truly had been able to love the boy as much as the story said she did, she would have taken care of herself better, and in turn, could have given even more to the boy. She would have modeled self-love for the boy, showing him that this idea could possibly be more fulfilling than an excess of apples, a large house, or even a big boat.
And perhaps it could have made the boy happier than she had ever even dreamed. But I guess we’ll never know.