It’s an old book. But its ideas of how to give are thought-provoking.
In 1964, HarperCollins Children’s Books published a classic tale, The Giving Tree. Filled with the clean scratchings of Shel Silverstein, the story follows a young boy and a tree through childhood, adolescence, midlife, and old age. In every scene the tree loves the boy and gives him something: leaves for a crown, apples to sell at the market, branches to build a house, its trunk for the hull of a boat, and lastly its stump as a resting place. At every turn the boy receives, and the tree is happy, albeit diminished.
What can The Giving Tree teach us today about the opportunities and challenges of giving? It begins with:
Motivation: “Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy.” Each act of giving by the tree is motivated by love and addresses the needs of a specific individual. Nowhere in the story do we learn of an expectation of returned love. The tree keeps giving regardless of the boy’s response.
The main motivation to give is love.
Time: “But time went by.” Both the tree and the boy change over time. The boy needs money, a house, and a boat, which draw him away from the tree. He loves other things apart from the tree. The tree changes in size and stature, but its desire remains focused on giving to the boy.
Giving is done in dynamic time, and will change both giver and recipient over time.
Substance: The tree only gives from what it already has. “I’m sorry,” said the tree, “but I have no money. I have only leaves and apples. Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city.” The tree, to be anthromorphatic, knows its limitations. It doesn’t have money, but it has apples that can be sold for money. It doesn’t have a house, but it has branches that contribute to the building of a house.
You can’t give what you do not have.
Happiness: In Silverstein’s happiness index, the tree comes out on top. Despite its losses, the tree is happy, while the boy continues in need. With each gift the tree expects the boy to become happy, “Cut down my trunk and make a boat,” said the tree. “Then you can sail away…and be happy.” The formula never works for the boy, and we’re left with a statement that he is tired, and nothing more.
Givers win in the end.
Since its release The Giving Tree has raised many questions in commentary. Does it symbolize a codependent relationship? Is it about parenthood and loss? Is it a warning against giving too much? Is it a blessing on giving your all? There lacks a consensus, as most stories do, on the main point of the parable.
But the blessing and the lesson of The Giving Tree may lie in agenda-setting. Within we find a plethora of relatable and real questions about the art of giving—whether that be through time, money, substance, or emotion. It relays a concrete story of investments given out of love, over time, with the resources at hand. Silverstein’s’ message is that givers win in the end, no matter what. Should we agree with him?
We’ve designed the Give channel of Humane Pursuits to be a forum for the classic questions (and modern iterations) of giving, whether that be through activism, volunteerism, or philanthropy. What does it look like to give well today, and what are the avenues we have to do it? Although we may disagree on the specific recipients and methods of giving, we affirm that the urge to give back is good and deserves exploration.
To join the discussion and find writing opportunities, please contact editor-in-chief Brian Brown or Give channel editor Ashley May.
Ashley May is the editor of the Give section at Humane Pursuits. She works in the nonprofit sector in Washington, DC, where she researches investment opportunities in criminal justice reform, free enterprise, and workforce development for The Philanthropy Roundtable. Prior to her current position, she coordinated development events for the American Enterprise Institute and traveled the country as an admissions counselor for Calvin College. Her writing has appeared in Philanthropy, Tech Cocktail, Values and Capitalism, Social Impact Exchange, and The American. Besides writing, she enjoys serving in her local church, playing clarinet and mandolin, and cooking Italian food.