Monday, March 8, 2010

The Giving Tree

The variety of human experience and perspective never ceases to amaze and occasionally confound me. Yesterday morning I read one of my favorite stories, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, as the "Story for All Ages" at church. Following the service I was confronted by an angry woman who said that she "and many others" were deeply offended that I had read such a book, given it's "sick, sick, sick" portrayal of unhealthy relationships.


I certainly understand that there are people in this world who abuse others, and who would use any tool available, including a children's book, to reinforce their efforts to subjugate women. How 'bout we blame the oppressors, rather than the book?

In my interpretation of The Giving Tree, we are all "the boy", standing on the shoulders of others who have paved the way for us, sacrificed for us, died for us. We eat the flesh of slain animals, pull vegetables out of the ground and stew their roots, slice trees into planks to build our abodes, chip other trees to be cooked into paper.... the list goes on and on. The truth of our existence, dating back to the first cells that discovered it was easier to eat another cell than to process nutrients directly, is that life consumes life. Do your best to wash your hands of it, but you are still implicated. You are a user! And so am I.

What is left to "the boy" who portrays our existence is to respond to existence by either taking life's gifts for granted or becoming deeply, eternally grateful. The grateful response includes giving thanks for what is taken (as with the Native American tradition of giving thanks for the animal's sacrificing itself for the life of the tribe), minimizing our impact, using nothing unnecessarily, and planting trees and gardens for those who will assume our taking ways in generations to come. Eventually we discover that our destiny is to become food for others, and we make choices as to how we respond to that awareness.

There are other possible interpretations of this classic tale. It could be about parenting. It could be about God. And yes, if you associate yourself exclusively with "the tree", rather than seeing yourself as "the boy", it could be part of a plot to force you into subservience.

Let me be clear. Sacrifice that is compelled isn't sacrifice, but rather slavery. However, neither is chosen service the equivalent of involuntary servitude. I'm grateful to have a story which gives rise to thoughtful consideration of these varying perspectives.

The book could be twisted and misinterpreted though. We'd better burn it.

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