Happy Arbor Day! In honor of Arbor day Time has a list of the top ten coolest “trees” of all time. How the Keebler elves’ tree ranked higher than Tolkien’s Treebeard is beyond me. Also among the top ten was Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, a tree that was the topic of much debate in the pages of First Things some years ago. It was, interestingly enough, mostly the female participants in the Giving Tree Symposium—Mary Ann Glendon, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Midge Decter—who thought the The Giving Tree a bad example for children and a warped view of motherly love. As Mary Ann Glendon described the tree who gave of herself until there was nothing left of her but her stump, “Tree’s qualities would make her a terrible mother—a masochist who, quite predictably, has raised a sociopath. . . . Whatever it means to say she ‘loved’ Boy, she did not care for him enough to set him straight on a few minor points, like saying ‘thank you,’ or treating others as fellow human beings rather than as instruments for the satisfaction of his own desires.”
Most of the male participants thought the Tree an admirable example of self giving and I’m inclined to agree. The fact that the boy is not as grateful as he ought to be emphasizes that truly selfless love is, as Gil Meilaender said, “is not without risk.” Because we want and work for the best for the people we love is no guarantee that it will finally work out. The Tree, after all, gave selflessly but not recklessly; the things the Boy wanted were all human goods—money, a home in which to raise a family—the Tree was not foolish to think that she was contributing to the Boy’s happiness. “Is this a sad tale?” Timothy Jackson asked of The Giving Tree?
Well, it is sad in the same way that life is sad. We are all needy, and, if we are lucky and any good, we grow old using others and getting used up. . . . Our finitude is not something to be regretted or despised, however; it is what makes giving (and receiving) possible. The more you blame the boy, the more you have to fault human existence. The more you blame the tree, the more you have to fault the very idea of parenting. Should the tree’s giving be contingent on the boy’s gratitude? It it were, if fathers and mothers wiated on reciprocity before caring for their young, then we would all be doomed.”