In Defense of “The Giving Tree”

I have heard and understood the critiques. As a promoter of self-care and boundaries, I appreciate the reframing of the tale. I desire to see people live whole and full lives, therefore I champion any effort to keep someone from becoming a martyr and whittling themselves away.

I still love The Giving Tree.

In my work as a Christian preacher and teacher, I like to say that “the Bible can mean a lot of things. It can’t mean everything, but it can mean a lot of things.” Just like the sacred text I live my life by, I have encountered very few texts that restrict themselves to just one point, and most of those are propaganda. The Giving Tree is as multivalent as any other.

I don’t offer a defense of the book because I think there is some sort of great point Silverstein was trying to make (He didn’t actually mean The Giving Tree to be read moralistically). I offer a defense in the hopes that we will still read it to children because there are certain of us who might find a moral point in it, even if the author didn’t intend one.

I was one of those people.

I am a person who lives with constant worry that I will be taken advantage of. I fear being the tree. I hesitate to give an inch because I’ve seen how easily it becomes a mile. But I am also a selfish person. I know this about myself. I hoard goodness by disposition and have found myself, at times, doling it out in drips and drabs.

I don’t like that version of me. Reading The Giving Tree challenges me to be a different (and, I dare say: better) person.

The constant refrain of the book is that “the tree was happy” when she gave to the boy. This, of course, is the target of the critiques leveled against it. But I’ve never been able to square these critiques with a major tenet of my faith that says I should sacrifice for others. I am taught (and I teach) that because God in Christ gave up everything for us, we are called to do the same for others. My faith, as I understand it, says that the only way this life we all live together becomes a better reality is if we do not hold back in our sacrifice. And if I have more to sacrifice than others, then I should sacrifice more than others.

I am a kind of person who is not often expected to give of myself. In fact, when I do, people routinely express shock and surprise. I am a boss. I am a man. I am white. I am educated. I am…insert marker of comfort and privilege here. I am someone who has a natural disposition and has been conditioned to unreflectively accept it when someone gives to me. If I have a need, I expect that I can ask and it will most likely be granted.

What I am striving to discover is whether or not I can be like the Tree. Can I give, and, in doing so, be happy? My faith tells me this is not only possible, but true and expected. This is what I preach most every week from the pulpit. If I revere the portion of the Bible that calls us to imitate Christ in the way he “did not see equality with God as something to be grasped, but he emptied himself” into a lowly human form, how do I look askance at The Giving Tree for showing me the same kind of thing?

Silverstein hated children’s books because he thought they lied to kids about happy endings. “It’s about a boy and a tree,” he once said. “It has a pretty sad ending…It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes.” To quibble with the author, it’s only a sad ending for the boy. The Tree got exactly what she wanted. I find it telling that critiques of the book assume the Tree doesn’t know what she wants, that she doesn’t have her own agency. In the book, the Tree very clearly knew her own mind. What does it say about us that we cannot fathom a life of fulfillment and goodness that involves a lot of sacrifice? What is a “happy ending?” Is happiness being the one who takes like the boy did? I don’t think it is. Through my faith and reading books like Silverstein’s, I have come to believe and know that happiness is found in giving.

I hope you don’t choose to willingly misunderstand me. I hope you don’t impute into my words and meanings something that is not present. The point I am making is: I believe sacrifice is a good thing, that The Giving Tree added to my understanding by offering that sacrifice can and will make me happy, and that I am not the last person on Earth who needs to learn this lesson.

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