The Many Layers of “The Giving Tree”

In the last few years, I’ve been better trying to understand myself. One of the things that I’ve been trying to untangle is the difference between being generous and being people pleasing, balancing my responsibilities to others and respecting my own needs, of knowing what is mine and what is someone else’s to bear.

One of the best books that has helped me learn more about healthy and unhealthy giving is Adam Grant’s wonderful book, Give and Take. (In fact, the book has helped me so much that my blog reads like Adam Grant fan non-fiction. 🙂 )

Another book I read recently, the noted children’s book The Giving Tree by Shel SilverStein, gave me more food for thought. The book is a story about the relationship between a tree and a little boy, and how the the tree gives all she can to the boy to make him happy.

When the boy is little, he loves the tree:

He would climb up her trunk
And swing from her branches
And eat apples
And they would play hide-and-go-seek.
And when he was tired,
He would sleep in her shade.
And the boy loved the tree…very much.
And the tree was happy.

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As the boy grows up, their relationship changes. The boy doesn’t want to swing by the branches any more or play hide-and-go- seek. He wants to buy things and have fun.

“I’m sorry,” said the tree,
but I have no money.
I have only apples.
Take my apples, Boy, and sell them
In the city. Then you will have money
And you will be happy.”
And so the boy climbed up the tree and gathered
Her apples and carried them away.
And the tree was happy.

Later, as the little boy grows older, he wants a wife and kids, and wants a house. Could the tree give him a house? The tree offers her branches to the boy so he can build his house. After a long absence, the boy, as he continues to be called throughout the book, comes back. Now, he wants a boat that will take him far, far away. And the tree continues to give, asking the boy to take her trunk to build his boat. All that’s left of the tree is her stump.

When the boy, now an old man, comes back, the tree apologizes, for now she really has nothing to give him. But now, the boy doesn’t need apples or branches or wood. All he needs is some rest.

“Well an old stump is good for sitting and resting.
Come, Boy, sit down.
Sit down and rest.”

And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.

This is how the story ends. I will go on the record on this one. I bawled like a baby when I read this book. The story is emotional; the writing, elegant; the pictures exquisite.

I was left with a bunch of entangled feelings though. I was happy that the tree wasn’t alone in the end, that he had the little boy; I felt a little angry at the boy for being selfish; I wondered if the boy was wrong for asking too much or the tree was wrong for giving so much?

As I moved through the rest of the day, this book stayed with me, more as questions than answers.

One of the lens with which I interpreted this book was that of a parent-child relationship. Was this “normal” for a parent-child relationship, the constant taking? Or was this story about a parent who didn’t want her child to grow up, who considered the child a “boy” even when he was a grown man? Was sentimentally waiting for the boy to come back to her the right thing to do?

Another lens with which I viewed the relationship was a general codependent relationship, where one person is often the giver, and another, a taker. Is giving to this extent healthy? It seemed sentimental for the tree to “give her all” to the little boy, but was it right? As for the little boy, did he really love the tree, if all he did was take and take?

I’m verbalizing these questions now, but then, all I had was a huge mangled mess in my head and heart. Why did I cry? Was it sentimentality? Was it relief that the tree wouldn’t die alone? Was it a kinship with the tree? Or frustration about the lack of reciprocity from the little boy?

Later, when I went to dutifully clock in my reading on Goodreads, I stopped to read some of the reviews. The Giving Tree turned out to be one of those books that splits people into camps and like one reviewer put it, kills Goodreads friendships.

Some of the reviews were brutal.

Sava Hecht rated it 1 of 5 stars
Co-dependent tree needs to set some fucking boundaries.
flag 223 likes

Jan Bednarczuk rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: nobody
Shelves: childrens
…What’s the message here? Is it “When someone loves you, it’s okay to just take advantage of them endlessly because they will always be there for you anyway”? Or perhaps “If you love someone, just give them everything you have and expect nothing in return, ever.”
flag 26 likes

Though people assigned different metaphoric meanings to the book—such as being an allegory for Christ’s sacrifice, unconditional parental love, selfish exploitation of the environment, men’s subjugation of women—most interpretations were painful, cautionary tales of too much giving.

And while people who had rated the book poorly often thought that the book’s lesson was selflessness, others were able to separate the story from the lesson, and appreciated this book for the mirror it provided, and treated it as a warning against selfless giving.

Skylar Burris rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: childrens

Many Christians (including myself initially) have thought of this as an allegory for Christ’s sacrifice. I can certainly see why people think this is a Christian allegory: the tree, like Christ, gives itself entirely for the boy, even to the point of abject humiliation. If it is a Christian allegory, however, it is the disturbing tale of Christ’s terrible, painful, continuous rejection by man, and _not_ the heart-warming tale of unconditional love and forgiveness many Christians take it to be.There is no repentance in “The Giving Tree,” and therefore no real forgiveness.

Some take it as a tale of unconditional parental love, but if it is, it is again a painful tale: a tale of the child who never, his entire life, truly learns to appreciate his parents. Environmentalist read it as a tale of man’s selfish exploitation of nature. Feminists regard it as a story of man’s subjugation and abuse of woman and woman’s failure to stand up for herself (the tree is a “she”). The fact that the book can speak to so many people on so many different levels is, I think, evidence of its subtlety and irony. It really can work on more than one level, if you _want_ it to.

As one reviewer beautifully observes:

Benjermin rated it 5 of 5 stars

Recommends it for: all human beings

My only thought is that many readers allow their hatred for the boy to be confused with hatred for the book. Does the book condone the boy’s behavior, or simply seek to tell a narrative? Does the quality of a book suffer when the moral quality of its characters flags?

It is the job of narrative to relate a story. It is the job of a classic to relate a timeless story, to which countless readers of any age can relate. So whence the hatred? Is it because so many readers have known people who have taken and taken with such unrelenting fervor that they then displace this hatred onto a book that merely tells a story so fundamental it can’t help but arouse feelings in any human who reads it?

The Giving Tree is a book that disturbed me, that shook me up, that made me wonder about the dangers of giving too much, especially for the tree, but also the little boy. For instance, did the boy learn he could “take” in all other relationships too? While givers can feel burned by selfless giving, it’s also worth remembering that too much giving harms the other person too.

Givers, who often find it hard to draw boundaries for themselves, could benefit from the giving tree by thinking about it this way then: “I will not give to you selflessly, not because it’s bad for me (though it is), but it’s bad for you too.”

How do YOU feel about the Giving Tree? Do leave your thoughts in the comments below. And if this post helped you in any way, don’t hesitate to share with others who may also find it helpful.

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Why “What’s In It For Me?” Doesn’t Motivate Givers

churchill-lifegivingIn his wise and wonderful book Give and Take, Adam Grant talks about the upsides and downsides of being a generous person, or in Adam’s words, a giver. Givers naturally enjoy giving their ideas, help, and support freely and this helps them build goodwill which drives their success. But sometimes, givers can care too much for other people’s interests to the extent that they hurt themselves.

Adam recounts the story of Sameer, a new MBA graduate and giver, who found it hard to negotiate the terms of his offer with a prospective employer. Sameer says:

I felt awkward. I like my boss and I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable.

Sameer had always found negotiations difficult and had the reputation of being a pushover, caring too much about other people’s interests and sacrificing his own. But this time, Sameer negotiated increases in his total compensation to the tune of $70,000. How did he do it?  It turns out that Sameer adopted the role of an advocate for his family when negotiating, instead of negotiating for himself. He says:

As a giver, I feel guilty about pushing too much, but the minute I start thinking ‘I’m hurting my family, who’s depending on me for this,’ I don’t feel guilty about pushing for that side.

Adam says this strategy works because Sameer is doing what givers do naturally: advocating for other people’s interests. Intentionally advocating for his family, whose interests are aligned to his own, helped Sameer be more assertive in the negotiation, while being fair to his boss and company.

Since givers are deeply concerned about the well-being and interests of others, sometimes even more than their own, serving the interests of others is a strong driving force, even more than “what’s in it for me?”

I was blown away by Adam’s insight and struck by the power that thinking about others has for givers. While we saw how thinking about others helps givers protect their own interests in negotiations, I wondered if this strategy could be used in other situations. If so, what might these other situations be?

Here are two situations that I identified where other-interest can help givers: to aid their self-development and to further causes dear to them.

I’ve been working on my communication skills using Ramit Sethi’s How to Talk to Anybody course. Early on in the course, Ramit makes the point that having good communication skills is a service to other people. So, when you go and approach someone at a party or a networking dinner, you’re doing them a favor, because they’re probably as hesitant as you in making the first step. When you smile and make small talk with a barista, you’re brightening their otherwise mundane day. And this thinking about others can be a surprisingly strong motivator. When thinking about improving their communication skills for themselves, givers might be constrained by real factors  (e.g., an introvert may find small talk draining) and mental models (e.g., “I don’t have anything interesting to say.”) But when givers think about how their communication skills serve others, they may find themselves more motivated to develop themselves.

Similarly, an introvert may need to act in a more extroverted manner sometimes, says Susan Cain. But pretend extroversion can be hard and draining for introverts. Introverts are more willing to act in a more extroverted way to further a cause they care about. Thinking about how their furthering their cause helps others helps introverted-givers marshal resources to act more extroverted (for some time only: conditions apply!). Susan gives the example of Brian Little, the acclaimed, introverted professor and giver who has a very extroverted persona in the classroom. Little constantly monitors the audience and adjusts his speech accordingly, peppering anecdotes or facts depending on the response of the audience. Here’s what Susan says:

(Little)views self-monitoring as an act of modesty. It’s about accommodating oneself to situational norms rather than “grinding down everything to one’s own needs and concerns.” 

Little thinks about othershis studentsand self-monitors to further his causeeducating studentsthat he cares about deeply.

So, used in healthy way, their innate generosity can help givers help others AND help themselves.

What are some other ways that givers can use their inherent concern for other people to make positive changes in their life as well as the lives of others? Would love to hear your comments below!

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On a lighter note 🙂
Thinking of others

The really powerful communication is “power-less” communication—A lesson by Benjamin Franklin and Adam Grant

Shake-the-world-gandhi-quoteAs I was reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, I was struck by the passage below where he talks about the art of persuading people. For context, Franklin is talking about how he came to adopt the Socratic method of debate, which he took to great lengths, often entangling people with his questions in a web of their own making. He gradually let go of this practice, but retained the habit of speaking with doubt and inquiry, instead of certainty, and found this manner of speech helpful in persuading people. He writes:

I continu’d this method some few years, but gradually left it retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may be possibly disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so and so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please, or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.”

Wait a second. Is Franklin really recommending talking with “modest diffidence” and avoiding “giving the air of positiveness to an opinion?” This seems opposite to the rules for success in today’s world where a forceful, emphatic communication style is valued, and “modest diffidence” is seen as a sign of under-confidence. Would Franklin have succeeded in today’s world? Or would he have been told that he didn’t inspire confidence and needed to work on developing a more forceful communication style?

Adam Grant provides some answers in Give and Take, the book that influenced me the most this year. Adam’s research indicates that there are three common reciprocity styles: “givers” give generously without doing the math on what they’re getting in return, “takers” take as much as they can, and “matchers” are as generous as the person they’re dealing with. These reciprocity styles are in turn closely related to how each of these categories of people try to achieve influence and how they communicate with others. Adam says:

Takers are attracted to, and excel in gaining dominance. In an effort to claim as much value as possible, they strive to be superior to others. To establish dominance, takers specialize in powerful communication: they speak forcefully, raise their voices to assert their authority, express certainty to project confidence, promote their accomplishments and sell with conviction and pride. They display strength by spreading their arms in dominant poses, raising their eyebrows in challenge, commanding as much physical space as possible, and conveying anger and issuing threats when necessary.”

Well, if career self-help is anything to go by, it looks like takers are adopting the all the right tactics to get ahead.

Except, they won’t.

It turns out that dominance is not really a sustainable path to influence. A forceful communication style can backfire, especially when communicating with a skeptical audience, and the more takers try to dominate, the more the audience resists. As Franklin onserved, “…I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us…” In fact, even when the audience is receptive, dominance is not a sustainable strategy, advises Adam. Dominance is a zero sum game, and the more one person has dominance, the less  others do. And so when a more dominant person comes into the picture, the taker is likely to lose his or her dominance.

So, what is the sustainable path to influence? Building prestige, a path that givers naturally gravitate towards. Unlike dominance, prestige is not a zero sum game. We can all enjoy prestige by virtue of our thoughts and action. Prestige is not a limited commodity like dominance, and this makes it more sustainable. Adam found that givers influence those around them by virtue of the prestige they have gained,  but the manner in which they do so looks very different from the way takers try to influence.

The way givers influence and persuade remind me of Gandhi. In a gentle way, they believe they can shake the world. As Adam puts it, givers adopt a “power-less” communication style, instead of adopting a powerful communication style:

Because they value the perspectives and interests of others, givers are more inclined toward asking questions than offering answers, talking tentatively than talking boldly, admitting their weaknesses than displaying their strengths, and seeking advice than imposing their views on others.”

While a powerful communication style is considered the de facto style for success, Adam found that the powerless communication style has many benefits when presenting, selling, persuading, or negotiating. While a powerful communication style may be great for some purposes (e.g., getting a foot in the door in a job interview), a powerless communication style is actually more effective when collaborating with others and persuading them. This is something the wise Franklin knew when he said: “…never using, when I advanced any thing that may be possibly disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; bur rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so and so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.”

As I see it, underneath the power-less communication style lies the intent to listen, to learn, and do what is best for the greater good, and people respond to this energy. While a powerful communication style certainly has its merits, at its worst, it steamrolls people into consent, and we all know the result of that is never pretty. The person who confidently, certainly, loudly asserts there are no holes in their thinking and steamrolls ahead crushes the knowledge that lies with others. As Franklin warned: “If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.”

So, if you really want to be a powerful communicator, leave space in the room for people to assimilate your opinion, instead of forcing it on them. Listen more, talk less. Don’t hesitate to say you don’t know, and then go find out. See the value that others bring. Win with prestige, not dominance.

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