The Giving Tree

The Giving Tree

There was an excellent article in the New York Times recently about recognizing the difference between selflessness and generosity. If you’re a parent or a grandparent, there’s a good chance you’ve read the book “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. It’s a story about a little boy who regularly visits an apple tree. Over the years, he takes the tree’s apples and sells them, cuts off her branches to build a house, and uses her trunk to make a boat. Finally, there’s nothing left but a sad, useless, and lonely stump.

For some reason, this has book become a classic example of generosity. When I first read it as a young teacher to my kindergarten class, I was upset by this story. I thought the little boy was selfish and ungrateful to the selfless tree who gave her life for him. It’s often touted as a story about generosity and kindness. But my feeling, many years ago when I read it for the first time, was that it was a story (albeit beautifully written) about selfishness and exploitation on the part of the boy and self-sacrifice to the point of ruination on the part of the tree.

As parents who have been hurt and estranged by our adult children, it sometimes can feel like we’re giving too much in what has become a one-sided relationship. It can feel like we’re sacrificial lambs on the altar of our child’s selfishness. We give and give with no appreciation. We knock ourselves out to find the perfect gifts for our grandchildren, often with no acknowledgement or a thank-you. We’re not invited to family gatherings and often spend holidays alone. We’re insulted and emotionally stripped bare.

I remember a saying when I was growing up that we should “Give until it hurts.” What terrible advice!  Giving until it hurts is self-destructive and can make us sick, weak, frustrated, and desperately sad. Over-giving can be a cry for love, but it doesn’t work. In the book, the tree seems happy to give, but I ask the question, why? Why is it considered commendable to give until it hurts, until you lose your health and ultimately your life force? I say it is masochistic to give to the point of depletion because  ultimately, it could kill us.

It’s good to be kind, generous, and giving. Of course it is. But first, take care of yourself. Fill your own cup with kindness and generosity, then give what you want but, leave enough for you. And if you ever read “The Giving Tree” to a child, I hope you’ll explain that the boy was wrong to take so much from the tree. And maybe, if the boy had nourished the tree instead of taking everything from her, she might have continued to thrive and make delicious apples for generations to come.