“Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy” Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree.
It is better to give than to receive and giving is nothing without love. I first learned this lesson in the 70’s after receiving and reading Shel Silverstein’s beautiful book, The Giving Tree. The story also helped me form an understanding of unconditional love and its price. It was an emotional experience I have never forgotten, like the first time I fired a shotgun…boom. The idea that unconditional love is equal to a happy Hallmark ending is simply untrue but does that make it any less valuable? We should all find a way to give.
“And everyday he would come and he would gather her leaves, and make them into crowns, and play king of the forest.” Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree.
Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Monk and teacher, in his book How to Love, teaches us ways to begin embracing the complexity of generosity in Silverstein's story. The book reads as if he were speaking directly to the predictable needs of the boy and the remarkable sacred offering given by the tree. Even in the deepest black of the night, the tree finds a way to give.
“Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is loves other name.” Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love.
When the boy in the book is an actual boy and he plays with renewable resources, leaves and shade, the sacrifice is somehow happy. There is a seeming mutuality between the tree and the boy and every one is pleased. As the boy grows up and takes the trees branches and eventually her trunk, we as viewers can begin to take offense. We begin to see the boy as thoughtless, as selfish.
When I love, I forget myself and I can give. When I remember myself, I am afraid that I do not have enough. I ask why should I give; I need my branches, it won’t make a difference anyway?
Walter Brueggermann’s book, The Other Kingdom, points to neighborliness, fallibility and mystery as worthy endeavors in this life. He argues that the sale of safety, perfection and scarcity that comes with capitalism might be a lie.
Our exploitation of the forest came without regard for the trees and much of our consumer economy came as a result of taming the forest, removing the trees, and planting agriculture. We thought the forest could give infinitely and then it was gone:
“He could scarcely believe it. Where was the forest? The landscape had been corrupted. The village had swollen by fifty houses. The forest had been pushed out of sight, and in their place were rough fields of crops growing between stumps…was the forest as vulnerable as the beaver?” Annie Proulx, Barkskins.
The boy in The Giving Tree is fallible. The mystery of why man does what he does in the name of progress, abundance, and innovation is put forward in the story. I want…says the boy, again and again. I want.
It seems to me that now may be the time for us to ponder whether our wants, desires, and their cost to the whole are worth it? Is there any lasting value to our dream of family, home, boat, two cars in the garage and a storage space? Is the price too high?
“But time went by and the boy grew up.” Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree.
He soon was too big to play and needed money and the tree had no money. I noticed similar concerns rising again and again in Barkskins by Annie Proulx. Somewhere our world took a trading currency and began to see it as an asset that defined character and happiness.
“The name Duquet would change from a curse to an honor. But there were difficulties- especially the ugliness of a toothless, collapsed jaw. It might be impossible to find a handsome wife. Unless he had money.” Annie Proulx, Barkskins.
But she had fruit and said “Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city. Then you will have money and you will be happy." Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree.
Thich Nhat Hanh continues: “Spiritual Practice doesn’t mean blind belief in a spiritual teaching. Spirituality is a practice that brings relief, communication, and transformation.”
“Keep in mind that if the forests and the timberlands are diminished, cropland is very much augmented- more food, more money, more people, more contentment.” Barkskins, Annie Proulx
This dilemma seems very timely even today as we ponder generosity and love. We all have our basic needs fulfilled (food, shelter, clothing) so the question becomes how much is enough? The platform of our economy is based on consumer goods that provide only temporary contentment…in a way we are all the boy. Our needs can never be permanently satisfied when we look to the world for fulfillment.
The boy did not return to the tree until he needed branches for a home, then again when he needed her trunk for a boat.
“If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour that same handful into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink.” Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love.
The tree was like the river in her bounty. Her understanding that love is an experience within. Her realization that love may ask for a sacrifice is truly brave. Offering beyond what we imagine is safe, possible, or acceptable takes courage. I often think about how the forest has given each of us our every desire. The cost to our forest is immeasurable. Each of us has received in the same way as the boy. Our whole life and our way of living deny the tree its branches and trunk.
I think we make a great offering to the trees when we are able to sit with the discomfort of the truth Silverstein pens.
“But even as Sosep spoke, he knew very well that many Mi’kmaq welcomed the ways of the Acadian French - their clothing, their stout boats, their vegetable and pork roasts, the metal tools, glass ornaments and bolts of fabric, their intoxicating spirits and bright flags and even their hot bare bodies, so pale.” Annie Proulx, Barkskins.
Finally the tree is just a stump and the boy is an old man. And still the tree provides a place for the boy to sit.
“True love includes a sense of responsibility and accepting the other person as she is, with all her strengths and weaknesses. If you only like the best things in a person, that is not love.” Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love.
“They were together again, and the tree was happy.” Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree.
The book does not say the boy was happy. Although he was the one receiving the gifts of the tree, his ceaseless desire seems to have left him unfulfilled. Each one of us knows this feeling. We are all familiar with the treadmill of scarcity and perfection. We live as if something out there will fulfill us when it is inside that needs tending, attention, and care.
Although I have engaged in practice for a sustained period of time, I notice many ways I simply take. I often leave a big footprint in my path. I often follow those footprints back to the source for more.
“He carried it alone to their camp, his feet making a deep impression with every step. After he let down the burden he made them examine his footprints. ‘ You see how deep when a man carries a heavy burden?” Sometimes that person is carrying supplies, sometimes fur packs, and sometimes a bear.” Annie Proulx, Barkskins.
But I try. I try to spend time each year living simply. In India and in Spain, I live without the trappings of the consumer world. As Whitman would say, rejecting the pull of it all. I think it is good for my soul. It brings ease to my perspective of the world, offering me a softer, more still way to be.
“If we set aside time each day to be in a peaceful environment, to walk in nature, or even just to look at a flower or the sky, then beauty will penetrate us and feed our love and our joy.” Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love.
Our beautiful practice creates strong roots. A tree whose roots are shallow will blow over in the first big storm. If we let our roots grow deep we can be resilient to the sometimes-startling weather of our life. The roots of a lasting relationship, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, are: mindfulness, deep listening, and loving speech. The tree in The Giving Tree embodied these ideals because that was who she wanted to be. And she was happy. The author reminds us of this again and again. David Byrne uses his bicycle to keep sane, the form will vary, but the roots, if deep are apparent.
The boy is a child for the entirety of his life. He never, even when he physically becomes an old man, matures into a place of wisdom.
Thich Nhat Hanh illustrates this immaturity with the metaphor of a pot without a lid.
“We believe our lid is somewhere in the world and if we look very hard, we will find the right lid to cover our pot. But the feeling of emptiness is always there inside us.” Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love.
This feeling of emptiness is no more or less real that the feeling of wealth that the tree embodied. It is a choice. The feeling we choose implies what we shall do.
Giving what she had, she exists in the now. Although we might consider the stump a kind of death....
The tree listens to the desire of the boy and gives what she can. True listening is listening without correcting.
“Sometimes someone will say something that surprises us, that is the opposite of the way we see things. Allow the other person to speak freely. Don’t cut your loved one off or criticize his words, when we listen deeply with all of our hearts…we will begin to see them deeply and understand them better.” Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love.
“And the tree was happy.” Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree.