Giving & Overgiving (Thanks, Uncle Shelby)

Without lines, spaces have no definition.” (Anonymous)

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein arrived on the earth two years before I did. It was a popular book to read to young people as I was growing up.  My memory of those readings is dusty and unreliable, but I do remember getting the impression that we were supposed to give like the Giving Tree gave to the boy in the story. Being generous supposedly meant giving away absolutely everything until all we had left was a worn out stump to offer as a seat.

This was supposed to be a good thing.

Ummm… I found that squishy on a good day, but I internalized it anyway. Throughout my life I have heard people extolling this book as a wonderful example of sacrificial giving. (You can find a sample of the way this book is often understood here.)

Eyes Open Somewhere in between my “Giving Tree Years”

and becoming a parent, I read Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends, which are collections of poems with a purpose. Some of his work shows up in my childhood favorite book and all-star cast recording, Free To Be You and Me.

As an adult, I fell in love with a very different Shel Silverstein book, Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book. The work was originally commissioned by Hugh Hefner for Playboy. It isn’t erotica, and it isn’t for children. It is a deliciously twisted, hilarious take on the ABC’s aimed at the children who played loudly under “Good Old Uncle Shelby’s” window when he was trying to sleep. It includes such gems as:

D is for Daddy.

See Daddy.

See Daddy sleeping on the couch?

See Daddy’s hair.Daddy needs a haircut.Poor Daddy. Daddy has no money for a haircut.Daddy spends all his money to buy you toys and oatmeal.Poor Daddy. Daddy cannot have a haircut.See the scissors…Poor, poor, poor, poor Daddy.

(Shel Silverstein)

Suddenly I understood that Good Old Uncle Shelby was a lot more multilayered than I had ever imagined. This led to an “A-Ha” about The Giving Tree.

Silverstein’s story isn’t about how to give; it’s about how not to give.

Is There a Tree Therapist in the House? In the book, the Tree happily offers her apples to feed the boy and her limbs for him to swing from. As he grows to manhood, she offers her apples for him to sell to make money. The tree appears to be consumed with “making” the boy happy.

In fact, her happiness is dependent on his happiness. She appears to only be happy when the boy is there. She has no identity outside of her role in this guy’s life.

Now we’re in trouble.

Hold My Apple Cider… When the boy wants a house, the tree lets him cut her branches to make himself a house. Now she’s giving to the point of injury.

Even that isn’t enough for the guy; He’s sad. He never bothers to consider that the tree has been going through some things in between his visits too. He says he wants a boat. She lets him cut her down to a stump so that he can make one.

Now she has given to the point of complete disfigurement. She’s lost her identity. She’s happy to do it, because it might “make” him happy for a moment.

This, friends, is codependency.

Lessons Not Learned The boy is left believing that the Tree exists only for his whims and pleasure. The Tree stops existing as a tree all together. It’s a demonstration of pathology.

Limits as Love Imagine if the Tree didn’t offer her limbs for the man to build himself a house. He would have to find another way. The Tree would have stood up for her limits, and had the opportunity to grow an identity that wasn’t about this guy.

When the guy asks for a boat, he wants it to deliver him from his sadness. What if she said no? He would have to learn to manage sadness; to find resources within and without. He might have made great art from his sadness. He could have grown and become a resource for others.

Instead, he is temporarily distracted and does not grow to self sufficiency. He returns to the Tree once again to “make” his world right. He learns nothing but dependency. He stays forever in self-absorbed, learned helplessness.

Simultaneously, the Tree forfeits her entire existence in the service of an impossible task: Making

someone else happy. She loses everything in the effort. How many other kids could she have shared community with if she still had limbs and apples? How many decades might she have lived as a mutually contributing member of the ecosphere?

Giving Lessons When we notice and assert our limits, we demonstrate that we each have value and identity. We are free to offer our gifts with longevity, undepleted. Our limits offer opportunities for growth to those we love.

Silverstein sums it up in his short poem, Helping, (recorded by Tommy Smothers on the Free to Be You and Me soundtrack.)

Agatha Fry, she made a pie,and Christopher John helped bake it;Christopher John, he mowed the lawn,and Agatha Fry helped rake it.

Now Zachary Zugg took out the rug,And Jennifer Joy helped shake it;Jennifer Joy, she made a toy,And Zachary Zugg helped break it.

Some kinds of help is the kind of help,That helping’s all about,And some kinds

 of help is the kind of help,
We all can do without.

(Shel Silverstein)

............................................................................................... Do you ever feel like the Giving Tree? Contact Tiffany today. Let’s figure out a better way.