Did you ever read The Giving Tree?
It’s the story of a tree that is happy to become a useless stump after a little boy has used up all its resources without ever reciprocating her kindness or apologizing for the impact of his actions.
The tree doesn’t feel disappointment or regret about all the apples it could have produced, because that would mean that it expected something in return from the person who stripped it of its vitality, and that would mean that the tree couldn’t really have been good-hearted!
We need the tree to be good-hearted in order to want it to be happy, because happiness should only belong to those who we think deserve it, right?
People who insist on interpreting that lovely little story as “unhealthy” just have bad, bitter hearts.
The message in this macro suggests that ultimately, it’s your motives that really matter more than your actions. If your heart feels good when you do something, that is 100% of the battle.
Also, your (lack of) expectations should really outweigh other people’s actual responses to what you’ve done with all your good-heartedness.
Your expectation of no reciprocation or acknowledgment is more important than the possibility that the person/people you’re doing goodness at might want to a) do something nice for you in return or b) express dissatisfaction with what you so well-meaningly chose to do in the first place.
Why should their feelings matter? We’re talking about your inner peace!
At any rate, the real end game here is avoiding disappointment. Disappointment is the worst! You don’t want to have any more of that in your life than absolutely necessary, am I right?
Expectations lead to disappointment, which is bad, so don’t expect things.
Not having to learn how to deal productively with disappointment is an important part of becoming a well-rounded and responsible person.
While originally working on this post, I had the vague sense of having read that Shel Silverstein himself was kind of ambivalent about The Giving Tree. I thought that he may have viewed it as sad, or at least didn’t necessarily see it as the easy-breezy life advice it’s often taken for.
This New York Times article is the best I could come up with to validate my fuzzy semi-recollection, and the only relevant Silverstein quote it provides is simply that the book was “about a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes.”
Not exactly a resounding endorsement of the tree’s caring nature, but also not a condemnation of the boy.
It’s not ethical to speculatively diagnose people with mental illnesses (particularly dead people (and even more particularly dead people I never met)) and yet I would not be shocked if Silverstein struggled with depression.
His child-directed work typically counterbalances its fundamental darkness with humor, hope, and whimsy, but that darkness is pervasive. Even his simplest pieces often have multiple layers, and the overall ethos of his poetry collections feels subversive in a way that is unlikely to have stemmed from a life of persistent contentment.
My reason for bringing up his background is that the person behind the creation of The Giving Tree, a book that is famously used to reinforce the message from this macro, probably didn’t view it as a saccharine or straightforward text.
The fact that people tend to view the book as either sweet or wholly unsavory just demonstrates our cultural tendency to disengage from nuance.
We can’t know his thoughts for sure, but it seems unlikely that The Giving Tree was just a weirdly earnest exception to his characteristically winking jadedness.
The poignancy of the ending isn’t because the tree always did the right thing or because the boy-turned-old-man learned a valuable lesson.
It’s sad because it’s an honest, descriptive representation of a common and bittersweet dynamic.
The tree is a metaphor (gasp!) but the literal story rings true. Givers are at risk of giving themselves to death to takers who never questioned their own right to have.
It seems to me that the moral of the story is not to lionize either character, but to question them both. You don’t really want to be the dead, devoted stump or the oblivious ingrate.
(Note: I actually don’t have a copy available for reference, so I’m relying on my memory. I don’t think there’s a message on the last page that says something direct like, “the moral of the story is…” but if there is, I grant that this would affect my interpretation.)
A few years ago, I revisited another short Silverstein favorite from my childhood: The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.
I cried a lot more than I expected to (which had been “not at all”).
The Missing Piece is a little sentient triangular wedge that doesn’t know where it fits in. The world around it is populated by rolling Pac-Man-like circles. The eponymous Piece hopes to complete one of these circles by fitting perfectly into its empty slice-of-pie space. Once that happens, it will know where it belongs. There is always some reason why it’s not a good fit with the available options, though. At one point, the Missing Piece is picked up by a rolling Pac-Man with a gap that complements its shape. Together, they create a perfectly round circle and enjoy rolling happily along.
But that’s not the end.
Unexpectedly, the Missing Piece begins to grow. It no longer fits into what it thought was its intended place. Both Piece and Pac-Man are disgruntled. They had expected everything to stay the same, but once that becomes unsustainable, they go their separate ways. Or rather, the Pac-Man goes its own way, because the Missing Piece is shaped like a doorstop and has limited mobility. Then the Big O rolls by. It’s already a perfect circle with no evident gaps or missing bits. They get to talking, and the Missing Piece is drawn to the Big O, but there doesn’t appear to be a place for it to fit. The Big O is already complete and self-sufficient. The Piece asks if it can come along anyway, and the O simply states that they’re not currently able to move in the same way at the same pace. It’s matter-of-fact rather than condescending or discouraging. The O notes it would be nice to meet again some day, and then goes on its way. The Missing Piece proceeds to pull its angular body up until it flops over, time and again, and as it moves forward its pointy edges begin to wear off. It’s awkward and difficult and it takes some time, but the Missing Piece becomes a circle capable of rolling on its own. It no longer needs to wait for a perfectly complementary Pac-Man to pick it up and carry it around, and in this way, it’s able to rejoin the Big O.
It’s possible to read this as a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative, but as with The Giving Tree, I think that’s too simplistic.
It would also be possible to read this as a suggestion to adapt yourself until you’ve become more palatable for someone you like, but that also misses the point.
This story is about co-dependence, self-determination, and agency.
Unspoken expectations also come into play. Part of the reason that the Piece is consistently disappointed with its own loneliness is that it isn’t really communicating its expectation of completion to the various Pac-Men it meets. The Piece expects them to complete it just as much as it completes them, which is a pretty big ask.
The Piece has presumably never seen wholeness and self-sufficiency represented as a viable option before, so it’s not entirely the Piece’s fault for concluding that it must have been incomplete.
The character of the Big O demonstrates the necessity of representation.
Once the Piece sees that it’s actually possible to travel around without having the perfect partner, that’s the choice it makes.
Its physical changes aren’t superfluous cosmetic accommodations as much as they are the practical consequences of changed behavior.
So what does The Missing Piece have to do with The Giving Tree and this message of benevolent subservience?
Expectations, communication, and complexity.
Whether the author intended it or not, the absence of real, honest communication is one of the quiet little tragedies in The Giving Tree.
Suggesting that “The tree made her choices, so if she didn’t want to be used up and hollowed out, she should have said so” is the kind of rationalization used by people who have been unreasonably demanding.
The boy never had to experience disappointment in his relationship with the tree because his requests were always indulged.
What if he had checked in on the tree more often? What if he had declined to accept something that she offered? It’s the fact that he isn’t shown to communicate any kind of awareness of the needs of others that leaves many readers cold.
At the same time, it’s possible to interrogate the patterns of seemingly kind choices made by some people (or anthropomorphic trees) and call attention to the ways that they aren’t really all that helpful or supportive.
As always, context matters.
The tree never deflected by saying anything like, “I’d love to help you, but this isn’t a good time for me right now” or “I like to feel useful and needed, so it’s easy for me to say ‘yes’ to things that might actually overextend the resources I need to take care of myself.”
She may well have been disappointed and felt abandoned if the boy didn’t ask such significant favors of her.
The macro message suggests that you should behave in ways that will help you avoid the disappointment of unmet expectations.
And it’s true that there can be value in lowering expectations, because maintaining unreasonably high or unspecified expectations can be incredibly frustrating and disappointing.
But disappointment is part of life. You can’t avoid it forever.
It happens, and then you need to move on.
The Giving Tree is often (mis)used as advice for avoiding disappointment.
The Missing Piece Meets the Big O is about moving forward after it happens.
And both stories are about the things we don’t say that might be better off said.
Happy Valentine’s Day!