Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

It's a children's classic. But I don't like it. Nay, I loathe it, and have for years.

It is a story about a lifelong abusive relationship, and the story implicitly endorses submitting to an abusive relationship -- in the name of love -- as a good thing.

I got to thinking about The Giving Tree after reading this parody of it (H/T). It's more concerned with politics than relationships, but the final page has the tree quite properly telling the boy "You're a real dick."

He sure is.

I've heard it said that it's really about the unconditional love that a parent has for a child. And I'm glad for the unconditional love that my parents have for me. Shoot, they've bailed my adult ass out on more than one occasion. For that, I am grateful, and ashamed that it was necessary for them to do so. But I am certainly not, as the boy is to the tree, never thanking them and only looking for new ways to exploit them.

A better analogy for the story is an abusive spouse. The boy is a husband who orders their lives according to his selfish desires, and regards his wife as only a resource to be drained, physically, emotionally, and financially. And then runs off and has his fun.

Some people get trapped into abusive relationships, and the bonds that trap them are unconditional commitments that they make to love a person, no matter how unworthy that person becomes of that love. The victim sees him/herself as somehow ennobled by a willingness to endure abuse and live a lie for the sake of an ideal.

But there is nothing noble about slavery. There is nothing noble about enduring abuse for its own sake. There is, on the contrary, a moral duty to oneself; to say "I am more than a victim, and I will act accordingly."

This is basically the same rationale I followed when I left Christianity. What I was doing, quite consciously at the time, was exiting an abusive relationship with the Church. There may have been reasons to endure the abuse in silence (e.g. financially provide for my family), but one of those reasons was not that I had an inherent moral duty to do so.

And neither do you. You're a human being, and you're valuable. Whether you want to arrive at that conclusion from an imago Dei perspective, a humanist perspective, or something else entirely, you have intrinsic worth to yourself merely by being human.

You don't have to stay in an abusive relationship. And if anyone tells you otherwise, just say "You're a real dick."

25 comments:

rocksalive777 said...

The Giving Tree, is above all, a children's book. And given that the abusive character in the book is the child, I've always read it as a cautionary tale to children: "Don't be that guy."

Perhaps the tree is the example of long-suffering love (though, obviously, in an ad absurdum sense), and perhaps Mr. Silverstein intended for the reader to take something from that as well. But again, it's a children's book.

Children's literature does not require the flushing out of every single interpretation, because kids most often see what's just at the surface. It's just as true for the Harry Potter and Narnia series as it is for Silverstein's work.

rocksalive777 said...

Of course, this is similar to many children's works. When you look back on them at an older age, from a different perspective, you are shocked to see some of the messages that remained hidden throughout adolescence. Every time I watch a movie from my childhood, I am surprised at the racism, hero-journey structure, and/or sexual innuendo which can be read into it.

John said...

I disagree. Because it is a children's book and children are impressionable, it behooves parents and other adults to be careful about what ideas they expose children to. Such as the notion that taking abuse is good.

Bad Alice said...

My daughter likes this book, although I never have. She loves all things Shel Silverstein - the absurdity of his writing delights her. Although I do think it is a cautionary tale, I really dislike the sentimentalization of a love that allows itself to be damaged. I suppose one could even view it as a parable about Christ, who keeps giving to the ungrateful. Still, I don't care for it. I've heard it used as an example of the way we abuse the environment, which keeps giving until there is nothing left.

In any case, it makes for a good conversation with your child. In fact, I should go home and ask my child why she likes it.

Bro. Dave said...

I disagree with your hostile interpretation of this book. The book is called "The Giving Tree", not "The Taking Boy". The Boy is not "taking"; the Tree is "giving". There is a difference. You cannot abuse me if I freely give myself to you. See Luke 6:27-30 for Jesus' teaching. It is called "love", which is what this book is really about. IMHO.

John said...

Bro. Dave, if an abused wife came to you and told you that she was really just "giving" in a Christ-like manner by giving her husband everything he wanted, would you agree?

Scenario 2: If an abused woman came to you and asked for counsel about her marriage to a violent husband, would you suggest that she strive to be Christ-like by giving him what he wanted, no matter what?

Bro. Dave said...

My grandmother got up at 4 a.m. every morning to cook breakfast for her family. She washed their clothing, cleaned the house, cooked three square meals a day, etc. never asking for anything in return. Was she abused? Not in her opinion. And not in mine. The decision was hers to make and she made it out of love for her family.

Divers and Sundry said...

"You cannot abuse me if I freely give myself to you."

I cannot freely give myself to you if you are abusing me.

John said...

Bro. Dave, good for her. Now, how would you answer the two questions that I posed to you?

Bro. Dave said...

John, I avoided your scenarios because you begin each with the pre-judgment, "If an abused wife/woman came to you..." Seems you've already answered your own question to your own satisfaction. I, however, disagree. A person is not "abused" simply because s/he is giving her/himself freely to another.
And yes, Divers and Sundry, I can give myself freely to you even if you are abusing me. Again I would refer you to Jesus' teaching in Luke 6:27-30.

John said...

Bro. Dave -- then let's add the adverb "physically" or "emotionally" in front of the word "abused".

Now how would you answer the questions?

Jonathan said...

For anyone who might be interested, there is an extended conversation about The Giving Tree, with perspectives both pro and con, available at the First Things website:

http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3981

Divers and Sundry said...

"And yes, Divers and Sundry, I can give myself freely to you even if you are abusing me."

I strongly disagree. My friend whose husband hits her gives to her husband, but I don't think she gives freely because she gives out of fear of reprisal and in an effort to appease. I'm not saying she doesn't offer the other cheek. She does. That is all part of the exchange of abuse/acceptance of abuse. She cannot give to him freely because she is not herself free to give.

truevyne said...

I have to say it. I rarely disagree with your posts, but this one is an exception.
I'm in relationships all over the place. In each one, especially closest ones, I and the other person do not treat each other with the dignity every human deserves at all times. In fact, when I take another for granted or deliberately undercut someone, I've been abusive. I've violated his or her rights. I'm saying there is a time to forgive instead of cut loose. I am NOT advocating enduring physical or extreme emotional abuse, but the need to keep giving love freely and foolishly. My heroes are the ones who give though it costs everything.
(Romero, Ghandi, Biko, Jesus, Keller, Schindler, Ten Boom, Montessori, MLK, and sundry friends who names aren't recognizable)

Bro. Dave said...

In the story, the Tree selflessly loved the Boy - so much so that it was willing to give everything, including it's very life, to the Boy. One could say it was physically abused - a magnificent tree reduced to a mere stump - but the Tree did not see it that way... because it loved the Boy. So once again, I maintain that the Tree could not be abused because it loved the Boy and freely gave everything it had.
Should we all know such love in our lives... and we do, if we know Jesus.

Divers and Sundry said...

"I am NOT advocating enduring physical or extreme emotional abuse, but the need to keep giving love freely and foolishly"

"I maintain that the Tree could not be abused because it loved the Boy and freely gave everything it had."

It may just be that we're talking past each other or talking about different things when we say "abuse". I'm not really responding to the tree story or denying the reality of sacrificial giving. I'm specifically responding to this flat statement: "You cannot abuse me if I freely give myself to you."

I've seen people abused, and you _can_ abuse someone who is trying to be giving and trying to give sacrificially. I have seen this done in real life and know it happens.

Abuse can so deprive a person of any sense of self-worth that to say the abused person is capable of giving to the abuser when all they are doing is trying to get the abuse to stop, well, I think that's not really "giving" as I define the term. I think of it as attempts at appeasement. Giving requires, imo, some sense that one has something worthwhile to give. Abusers rob their victims of that.

Divers and Sundry said...

"My heroes are the ones who give though it costs everything."

I admire them, too. I just see it as a different situation than that arising from the assurance that "You cannot abuse me if I freely give myself to you." People who sacrifice for a cause aren't the people I'm talking about. I'm thinking about the poor woman who gives her all to marriage and husband and now finds herself in an abusive relationship. She continues to freely give (if you can call it that), and she continues to be abused.

I don't like the implications of this statement: I cannot be abusing you if you are freely giving yourself to me.

John said...

Bro. Dave, if a physically abused wife came to you and told you that she was really just "giving" in a Christ-like manner by giving her husband everything he wanted, would you agree?

Scenario 2: If an emotionally abused woman came to you and asked for counsel about her marriage to a violent husband, would you suggest that she strive to be Christ-like by giving him what he wanted, no matter what?

Bro. Dave said...

My final comment on this thread... if the person in question felt she was being abused, then her giving is no longer out of love, but out of fear (as Divers and Sundry is talking about). If she feels trapped in her situation, her giving is no longer love.
But if she chooses to do everything for her husband out of love for him (despite physical or emotional abuse), I won't argue with that. I may disagree, but the choice to love is hers to make. True love expects nothing in return.
So, John, to prevent you from having to ask again, in the first scenario, I would not argue with the wife.
In the second scenario, I would not counsel the wife to just "take it". But if she chooses to "take it" because she loves him, I cannot stop that.
The Christian ideal, nonetheless, is to love one another as Christ loved us. In fact, He commanded us to do so. So ask yourself, how did He love us? And how should we then love one another?

John said...

Bro. Dave, it can be argued that to be Christ-like is to be a doormat underneath other people's feet; to simply take abuse again and again, without resistance, in the name of love.

In which case, I have zero interest in being Christ-like.

John said...

Truevyne, I think that there's a time to be forgiving and patient, and there's a time to throw the bum out and get a restraining order.

John said...

D & S wrote:

Abuse can so deprive a person of any sense of self-worth that to say the abused person is capable of giving to the abuser when all they are doing is trying to get the abuse to stop, well, I think that's not really "giving" as I define the term. I think of it as attempts at appeasement. Giving requires, imo, some sense that one has something worthwhile to give. Abusers rob their victims of that.I full agree. Which is why I find Bro. Dave's answers insufficient/scary because they don't account for the realities of abuse, and how it can completely fuck up your mind. A battered wife might say "I'm staying with him because I love him!" when she's really just appeasing his violent nature and has had her own sense of self-worth so damaged that she can no longer distinguish between a loving relationship and a parasitic one.

Abuse shouldn't be given this kind of philosophical leeway. It should be named and shamed.

My own personal experience confirms D & S descriptions of the psychology of abuse. Although I was never physically abused by church leaders, I was heavily emotionally and verbally abused by church leaders over a sustained period of time. And I kept on telling myself "I just have to love them more!" and "Somehow it must be my fault that they're doing this to me!" Their abuse had so battered my sense of self-worth that I no longer had the moral bearings to fully grapple with reality.

Chaoticidealism said...

It is not "giving" to let someone abuse you. When someone mistreats someone else, they aren't just hurting their target; they are losing themselves to hatred and pride and all sorts of nasty things. You don't let someone you love to that, to you or anyone else. It's hard enough to come back from being the target of abuse; it's even harder to recover one's humanity after being its perpetrator. Love doesn't mean "let someone have whatever they want". It means, "Do what you do so as to have the best possible effect on the other person's life". And letting someone take advantage of you is not in their best interests any more than it is in yours.

Anonymous said...

byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Anonymous said...

The book in my opinion is showing a mother and her love for her child. It shows how she gives and gives and how she unconditionally loves her child.