Shel Silverstein has left an indelible mark on many lives for a multitude of reasons. For some, itʼs the great relief in knowing theirs are not the only minds and ears taunted by the what-ifs. For others, itʼs the fun of reimagining the lives and intentions of the monsters that surround us in our childhood. Still for some it is the fun in wondering where life takes us and what lies beyond the point Where the Sidewalk Ends. For many, itʼs the long-lasting impact of the simplicity and beauty found on the branches of The Giving Tree.
My first encounter with The Giving Tree was somewhat unconventional. I was back in my college town for a weekend of memories relived and connections renewed. Typical to my trips ʻback home,ʼ I was spending Sunday afternoon with my mentor and friend Carrie. We had just finished off a distinctly western brunch at a new Fort Worth bistro and ended up on the patio of our favorite tap house. It was a breezeless bluebird day in late spring – the kind of day that makes everything seem fresh and wholesome.
My conversations with Carrie are always a funny mix of banter and deep discussions on lifeʼs purpose and meaning. It is customary and inevitable that we argue whose political beliefs are more sound – neither winning – but always conclude with a bit of knowledge gained and a small but healthy shift in perspective. After this particular exchange she made a comment about how “my side” needs a big dose of The Giving Tree to fix our ill-refute.
Carrie knew by my empty laugh that I didnʼt know what she had meant. “Youʼve never read The Giving Tree?!?” she exclaimed and questioned. After she explained the story, I felt like I had missed out on a potentially big part of my childhood. And then, as though it had magically appeared, she reached into her bag and pulled out a freshly minted copy of the story. She had bought it a few days earlier to give to somebody as a gift and had forgotten it was still with her.
So when I say that my first experience with The Giving Tree was unconventional, what I mean is that it was first read to me when I was 25, on the patio of a bar, by a woman who is as great a friend as she is a storyteller.
Brennan Manning gives us a great summation of the story:
“Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.” And so begins the story of a tree being happy because she is able to make the boy happy.
At first the boy desires nothing but to climb on her branches, eat her apples, and lie in her shade.
But as the boy grows, so do his desires. But because of the treeʼs love, she gives her apples for him to sell for money to have real fun; her branches that he might build a house for a wife and family; and her trunk so he could build a boat and sail away from the boredom of life.
And then one day, the prodigal returns to the tree that loves him. By now, she has given him everything; all that remains of her is an old stump.
The boy, now an old man, needs only a quiet place to sit and rest. And the Giving Tree gives once more.
I hope that I have not built this up too much at this point. The connection Iʼm about to make is not miraculous and it wonʼt change your life. But stories like The Giving Tree can teach us great lessons which can be shared among all of our experiences.
Timothy Jackson, professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University says about the story: “Is this a sad tale? Well, it is sad in the same way that life is sad. We are all needy, and, if we are lucky and any good, we grow old using others and getting used up. Tears fall in our lives like leaves from a tree. Our finitude is nothing to be regretted or despised, however; it is what makes giving (and receiving) possible…should the treeʼs giving be contingent on the boys gratitude? If it were, if fathers and mothers waiter on reciprocity before caring for their young, then we would all be doomed.”
The Giving Tree represents some of the greatest qualities we can encounter in this life. Through love, her purpose became the happiness of another soul (at whatever cost). She stood steadfast in her relationship with the little boy – serving him and loving him relentlessly. Even as he came back and used her for his own happiness, she selflessly gave him EVERYTHING she could.
Jesus did the same thing for those whom he loved. As Paul wrote in Philippians “He emptied himself.” He purposefully gave EVERYTHING he could and stopped at nothing so that others could be safe and happy.
Some consider Silversteinʼs parable to be a story of selfishness and greed by the boy and irresponsible passivity by the tree. I disagree. I believe it is one of the greater stories of love and service and selflessness – a shining example of a life lived purely and perfectly for the purpose of others.
This post was written by Matthew Owens, a regular Forum Facilitator.
Leading up to the 2014 Texas Student Leadership Forum, we plan to post one blog per week centered around the four tenets of the Forum. We invite anyone to contribute to the discussion – please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in writing.