When Childhood Stories aren't as Sweet as we Remembered
SimonSays #17 - How re-reading The Giving Tree challenged my view of generosity and gratitude
While going over my childhood books in my parents' apartment, I came across The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The book easily stands among my top 3 favorite childhood books. If you haven't read it, please take three minutes to read it for free here.
The book is about the relationship between a tree and a boy. At first, the boy loves playing with the tree, swinging from his branches, eating his apples, etc. But then the boy grows older, and he always appears to be lacking something: a house, money, a boat. So the tree gives him what he lacks, the boy takes, and everyone seems happy.
I've always loved this story and have read it countless times. What has always fascinated me was the tree's generosity and his complete selflessness. I probably didn't realize it at the time, but it probably played a significant role in orienting me towards a career more focused on helping others.
So having come across the book in my library, I re-read it. Immediately, those childhood memories and emotions came back to life. I had this same feel-good feeling by the end of it as I appreciated the tree's selflessness. But this time, there was something a bit different: I also seemed to be disturbed by the boy's behavior. Or, as Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant write in the NY Times’ parenting section: "It wasn't the warm, fuzzy, heartwarming story we thought we remembered. Despite being poignant and beautifully written, it was kind of depressing."
Questions immediately popped into my head. Had my understanding of the book been too naive all this time? Did the book have a happy ending? Was this book a depiction of selfishness and one-sided relationships?
Confused, I decided to have a look online. I discovered how divisive the book was. Countless articles, blogs, and Goodreads reviews were full of either love or hate for the book. I learned about the book's history and how many editors of children's books had rejected the manuscript. One of the editors of the book is even quoted in the New York Times as saying, "I have had qualms about my part in the publication of 'The Giving Tree,' which conveys a message with which I don't agree," adding "I think it is basically a book about a sadomasochistic relationship." I also learned about Shel Silverstein's life and discovered he was a regular at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion, a rare feat for an author of children's books. Read this New Yorker article if you want to learn more about Silverstein's life.
So while I was genuinely fascinated by all of this unexpected information on my most influential childhood book and author, the question remained is the Giving Tree a book about optimism or pessimism?
We've all been that boy, and most of us still are
It's also easy to criticize the boy and even easier to forget that we've all been that boy. Some of us still are. It's often only when we grow up or become parents ourselves that we realize the sacrifices our parents made for us.
In You have more influence than you think, Vanessa Bohns mentions a study conducted by social psychologists Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley. They asked participants to write gratitude letters to notable people in their lives (parents, teachers, friends, mentors). Before the letters were sent, participants had to guess how good and awkward the recipients would feel receiving these letters. As she writes, "the researchers then contacted the recipients of the letters and asked them how they actually felt when they read the letters (…) participants underestimated how good it would feel-and overestimated how awkward it would feel- for the important people in their lives to receive these letters of gratitude."
I think I underestimated the impact of messages of gratitude and appreciation until I started writing this newsletter. After writing my first article, I was stunned to receive a dozen messages of support from people I knew well, but even more surprising and impactful were those I received from people I was less close to. From time to time, I receive messages, emails, and comments from people telling me they enjoy reading SimonSays, and it just makes my week! So keep them coming 😉
Say Thank you before it's too late.
As mentioned, teachers are among the people that impact us the most. One of those teachers was my English high school teacher, Mr. C. He believed that teaching also involved mentoring, and his class would impact you in unexpected ways.
Interestingly, my favorite memory of him doesn't even involve me. One day, one of my friends, Arno, raised his hand to express his opinion on something in a book. Mr. C really appreciated Arno's contribution. So much in fact that he came up to Arno at the end of the class, shared his appreciation, and added that from now on he would like him to share more of his thoughts in class.
When Mr. C made that comment, knowing Arno, he probably appreciated the short-term implication it had - the fact that he had managed to say something clever and thus improved his image in the eye of the professor. But, without pseudo-analyzing too much, I think it also had a more profound effect that he didn't see coming: he felt empowered. For the first time, this kid who had always preferred math, science, and programming to the humanities was now told he had a good eye when it came to analyzing literature. Just like that, Mr. C had opened new doors for Arno. While Arno didn't end up becoming a writer or a journalist, I remain convinced that this moment was a pretty powerful one.
So, while we might all agree that gratitude is great, we'd probably be too shy if, like the participants in Kumar and Epley's study, we were asked to send gratitude letters to notable people in our lives. But if there's one of life's lessons that I've started to learn, it's that I should try expressing my appreciation and gratitude before it's too late.
To come back to our interrogations around the giving tree, I wonder whether people's interpretation would be less polarized if the boy had seemed more grateful for the tree's generosity and sacrifices or at the very least had said: "thank you."
Shel Silverstein said that the book “has a pretty sad ending” and it is well known that he wasn't a big fan of happy endings. I think one can see in this book whatever he wants to see or has been exposed to in life. Being an optimist, I've always viewed the book as a lesson of generosity and the value of altruism and selflessness. Yet, as I grew up, I might have been exposed to selfish or egoistic people, which might have influenced my approach to giving.
I like to ask people who haven't read the book to read it and tell me what they think (here’s the link to read it for free). I'm surprised by the variety of answers I get. Some are disgusted by the boy's behavior; others admire the tree and claim they should behave more like it. I find it fascinating how such a short and straightforward story about a boy and a tree can lead to such diverse interpretations.
For now, I think I'll continue to see it as an example that one should focus on actions alone, doing what one can to help, without expecting gratitude, recognition, or anything else in return. But who knows, next time I pick it up, it might be a whole different story.
I hope you enjoyed reading this! If you have any suggestions or feedback or would like to share personal stories or comment on childhood books, generosity or gratitude, feel free to leave a comment below or contact me on Twitter @the_simonpastor 🙂