The Selfishness of the Giving Tree

True love is unselfish, right? It gives generously and asks for nothing in return. When I sense that myself or someone else is playing the martyr, I think jokingly of The Giving Tree, a poem written by Shel Silverstein. There is a legitimate point to explore here, though. For those unfamiliar with the story, a boy and a tree have a playful and symbiotic relationship that grows more and more one-sided as the boy ages into a man. The tree literally gives parts of herself to make the boy happy, first her apples, then her branches, then her trunk, until there is nothing left but a stump. When the boy returns as an old man needing nothing but to sit on the stump and rest his weary bones, the man and the tree returning to symbiosis.

Though a children’s poem, it expresses an issue of existential and social concern. There are many different ways the story can be read, and just in rereading it, I was both saddened and angered. We are intrigued by the poem because we want to be the tree, and we often style ourselves as the tree, but we think that more often, we are actually the little boy.

The poem gets off easy, though, painting love and selfishness in black and white. We should note that there is a vast gray area between selfish and selfless. The first definition of selfish in my dictionary is, “lacking consideration for others.” “Consideration” is deceptively subjective. It means, “careful not to cause inconvenience or to hurt others.” Although politeness is valuable, if you take any sort of a meaningful stance on anything, you will cause inconvenience, and just by living around others, you will be inconvenienced most days. If you’re like me, your first instinct may be to think how selfish those people are, although you have no way of judging if your concerns are any less important than theirs.

But put that on hold and let’s look at the second definition of selfish, which is “concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.” How can this be judged? In the poem, the boy is certainly selfish according to the definition, and the tree selfless, but life never plays out in such a tidy narrative. Even if it did though, you will note that the tree doesn’t want nothing. The tree wants to be happy, and thinks it will be happy if the boy is happy. A psychologist might call the tree codependent, but that won’t really help us. The tree wants something, although it doesn’t know an efficient way to gain it. Is the tree less selfish than the boy? Do we respect the tree more?

I Googled “jesus giving tree” just to see how many people make that connection, and as I suspected, there are quite a few examples. I have no idea what Shel Silverstein intended with the poem, and it really doesn’t matter, but one can certainly map the evangelical Jesus onto the giving tree. He just wants to play and hang out and be buds, but you’re selfish. That’s okay, he’ll be there when you get back and give you a final place of rest. The problem with the poem, or the model of love supposedly given in the Christian portrait of Jesus, comes when we think we can apply it to our own lives. All our actions are concerned with self, and we establish a false ideal when we judge the actions of others and ourselves on the basis of a selfish/selfless dichotomy that can never be determined on the ground.

In debates with others I’ve suggested that all our actions are selfish, but that’s not quite right either. However, we don’t and can’t love without an element of self-calculation. A Christian response is to attack that head on and denounce it with some sort of penance or ascetic practice, or else attempt to ignore it and rationalize it away. These actions distort our understanding of self and cloud our understanding of others in a sort of Nietzschean ressentiment, a resentment that condemns self and other. If, however, we can approach our relationships with an honest assessment of what we want out of them, without stigmatizing our self-interest, we may be able to love more openly. It is better that we take control of what that is and the best way to achieve it rather than ceding our interests and desires to ready-made institutional categories.

This post is as much about notions of the self as it is love, but the presence or absence of self is a traditional defining factor of love that I’m arguing is misplaced. In a well-known passage, the apostle Paul notes that love is not self-seeking, but neither is it self-denying. It is self-identifying. In a gloss on the philosopher Martin Heidegger, one scholar explains that my love of another—and another’s love for me—is found in the shared possibility of a story that is ever exposed and always changing. The shared journey of love requires preference for the other in order to reveal the self to oneself.

So I am not saying we should give full reign to selfishness. The late David Foster Wallace has an excellent speech, This is Water, that expresses the perils of this beautifully. The first seven minutes or so of the second half are the best, but I’d highly recommend the whole thing. He’s giving a speech to Kenyon College about how if we go through life on our “default setting,” we will usually view other people as annoyances that are “in our way.” His point is that if we go to the effort to make a choice about how we will view the world, it can take on an entirely different meaning, the meaning that we give it. I think this can be applied to the way we think about love as well. Ordering our world requires a self-interest that then gives us the freedom to love.


Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage…

The type of love I think about most often is in relation to marriage. I have been married for over sixteen years, since I was eighteen years old (no, I won’t recommend it to my son), so it is one area where I have a little more longevity than most my age. It is the also an area of love where you get the little help from pop culture. All the movies end at precisely the point where two free-spirited individuals overcome all obstacles (especially that climax point where she finds out about that horrible thing she thinks he did and he has to come find her in the rain on his motorcycle on the beach as she’s getting on a plane to fly to the other side of the world and never coming back) and tie the knot. So the popular message is that love relationships culminate in marriage and…good luck after that, because it’s too boring to be movie material.

But what exactly is the relationship between love and marriage? I might say that the decline in marriage rates is directly correlated to the increasing valuation of a particular type of love in marriage. Simply, the other cultural factors that coordinated to keep an otherwise unhappy couple together have lost the grip they once had. Those who point to the decline in spirituality are at least partially correct; the Church has been and is a place that exerts social pressure on individuals to get and remain paired.

The primary reason my testosterone-addled teenage brain wanted to get married one month out of high school was that I wanted to have sex and was too scared to do it outside of marriage. My motto was from the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: “It is better to get married than burn in lust.” Likely because it was the issue I was most concerned about, I thought that sex outside of marriage was a death sentence, likely leading to dancing, drugs, drinking, gambling, and death, in no particular order. It was like one of those commercials for a revolutionary new prescription drug that promises great results, the side effects of which include everything from nausea to slow expiration from internal bleeding. So I followed the rules as much as a teenager can be expected to do.

So was the Church, the institution, wrong in trying to get me to confine intimacy to monogamous relationship? I don’t think so, even if the tactics they use to enforce their policies are sometimes inappropriate or desperate. It is in the best interest of the institution, of the social body, for you to be married. From his study of primates (and really, we’re all kind of like monkeys when we’re in love, right?), Frans de Waal has suggested that the pair-bond serves a definite developmental and sustaining societal function, eliminating an element of competition for species propagation. In other words, if most people are paired off, then I don’t have to worry as much about others jeopardizing my success in procreation. My mate will not be stolen from me when I am away; I get along with others more and I can concentrate more of my energy elsewhere. It is not surprising that many different social organizations coordinate to promote the benefits of marriage.

A biological explanation fails to convince me of a connection with love, however. Here’s my point: there is no necessary relationship between love and marriage. I was told that the love of a marriage relationship on earth is an analogy to the relationship between Jesus and the Church. (As an aside, try to read the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament strictly as an allegory to the love God has for Christians—it is a good mental exercise.) But it is first and foremost a social convenience. I am not saying that this is grounds on which marriage should be done away with, because insofar as marriage is still a part of society (and will continue to be for some time), it performs a significant cultural role. Even those who disparage the value of marriage rely on it in their day-to-day socio-cultural negotiations. What I am saying is that the link between love and marriage is one in which we collude with social institutions, equating the two in order to avoid the anxiety of existence in that area of being.

Marriage is no guarantee of love, of the preference I referred to in my last post. Loveless marriages exist everywhere, as do loving pair-bond relationships outside of marriage. There are consequences to mandating marriage as the norm, which I have seen in the second-class treatment of adult single or divorced folks in Christianity. My argument, then, is not to let marriage do the dirty work of love for you. Love is a fragile thing, and belief that marriage is its only proper container is a denial of its nature. It is open, exposed, and vulnerable. Consequently, we can view the relationship between love and marriage as a beneficial one…as long as it is beneficial. We cannot overlook the fact that it has no sanction outside of what we give it. Why get married? There are certainly some societal benefits. But the safety and security that are thought to come with it have no standing of their own. They are projections of our own battles against uncertainty.


Choosing to Choose in Love

Now that I’ve gotten some of my disparate ideas out of the way, I want to write a series of posts on a particular theme. Although I have several in mind, I’ve decided to start with a theme that I feel less qualified to write on than others: love. In many respects, I’m as qualified as any other. I have a number of family members and friends that I love. I’ve been married for a number of years, so have had some experience in the ups and downs of love in marriage. I have a number of things that I would say I love in casual conversation (coffee, for one). I even have things I love to do (like drinking coffee at a coffee shop while writing). I have not, however, studied love to any great extent. Death and violence are more my game. I have enjoyed many a discussion of the topic over the last few years, however, and it is this basis and my own experience that I want to address love in a few posts.

A brief definition of love is in order. I’ll admit that I usually think of love in a fairly abstract sense; nearly all definitions express it as a feeling, based on the emotions, manifesting in the body. In analysis, though, I feel somewhat detached from my emotions, and when I reflect on them, it is typically in the sense of analyzing another individual and not myself. I would define love as a complex of feelings by which we become aware of a strong preference for some individuals or things over others. These feelings seek out and are strengthened by affirmation from others. In the case of love of another being, this affirmation is some manner of reciprocation, love returned. In the case of a non-being, this affirmation is confirmation by other beings of the worth of the object. A couple things are worth noting here. First, although love is most commonly expressed in a paired relationship (I love you, you love me), it occurs within a matrix of possibilities, other potential beings to be loved. In other words, it does not exist in a vacuum. Second, this cognized feeling of preference might be explained as the emotional manifestation of a biological response, perhaps indicating the possibility of procreation and perpetuation or a substance that will bring me a healthier existence. A biological grounding can be both scientifically true and practically insufficient for my exploration, because its legitimacy does not extend beyond the boundaries of scientific exploration. It cannot plumb the depths of our emotions and self-reflection on the topic.

With this definition in mind, it may be easier to admit that although love in the abstract conjures up associations of pleasure, in experience it is as often pain, longing, or remorse. The most acute sense of love I have felt was when I was physically the farthest away from the objects of my love. Love expressed itself in absence, not presence, and the reintroduction of the objects of my love has never been quite as acute as their absence.

This functioning definition is relatively new for me. As in other areas, for most of my life my definition of love was given to me by religion. I have already noted that the premier version of love for me was an all-encompassing one, evidenced by the death of Christ. If, after all, I believed that that death was for all of humanity, both all that has come since and all that came before, it constitutes a level of love quite foreign and impossible to match. Yet as a Christian my mandate was to emulate that love.

I want to question the purpose and value of that religious definition, especially in the modern Western religious framework. More specifically, I would like to suggest that the actual purpose and value of emulating love in an all-expansive sense runs contrary to its rhetorical aims. There are many senses in which I think this definition of love is problematic. First, only in a theological sense can it be said to be true of Jesus. In a historical and practical sense it is clear he did not love all people equally and without condition. We can pass by that without saying more for now, knowing that for Christians, Jesus is the stated basis for the unconditional love we are given and are supposed to reciprocate to God and others.

What impact does this have? We know from experience that we do not love without reservation and exception.  All of us in our day-to-day lives, prefer some people to others and some things to others. We justify this in different ways. A Christian might say this is because Jesus’ love is an ideal to which we strive but always fail, or this is because of sin, etc. So if we consistently fail to live up to this standard of love, why is it maintained? Because it lessens the pain of existence, the pain and uncertainty that accompanies unfettered love.

To put it another way, it is because this type of love is neither accessible nor exercisable in any practical sense that it can be maintained as the ultimate form of love. In this manner, the individual can be told (in more liberal Christian circles) that she is loved by a divine being regardless of her actions. This serves as a salve for the acute feelings of the moment because it is untouchable by particular circumstance (which is also the same reason it can be unsatisfying unless socially reinforced). It is also comforting for us to think that other individuals in seemingly “unloved” circumstances actually are loved by God, despite all evidence to the contrary. This encourages us to “love” them in the same way, that is, by doing nothing to change their circumstances. Insofar as we are moved to step in and help another individual, our actions cease to be a universal love and become a specific and located action of care.

In short, the ways that we often think we love are not love in any evidential sense. Love becomes love by the act of preference, the very act that we are told relegates it to a lesser form. There is a whole unnecessary complex of guilt and shame that comes from this contradictory dogma. Rather than speak more about love on an abstract level, in the next few days I will instead approach the subject in its relationship with more specific topics such as marriage, self-interest and death. Meanwhile, if you’ve thought about a definition of love or aspects of universal love, I’d like to hear it.


What Does Civic Responsibility Mean to You?

A few other bloggers over at Patheos are starting what they are calling a “Values Development Project.” The project is reacting to the conservative argument that those who question established values (often thought to be grounded in religion) are against any sort of values whatsoever. The idea is to elicit responses from bloggers to a series of questions in order to get a richer sense of how “forward thinking people” respond to important these issues. I’m not sure I fall into that category, but when I saw the first question and cringed, I knew I should definitely write about it. (Increasingly I transfer my fitness mentality to other areas of life—if it’s going to be painful and you don’t want to do it, you should probably do it. Metallica said “What don’t kill ya make ya more strong,” and I’m fairly certain that’s a paraphrase from somewhere…)

The question is “What does civic responsibility mean to you?” To be honest, civic is a word I use so infrequently that I had to make sure I understood the definition correctly. When I think of civic, I think of obligatory words like “duty” and “responsibility,” societal mandates that all must perform. That is probably part of the reason the post-Baby-Boomer generation inculturation in me cringes instinctively. I don’t like to owe anyone anything, though we all have incurred debts greater than we can repay. I also vaguely thought of civic responsibility in terms of one’s country, like patriotic duty, but it refers to your local area, the city or town where you reside. It comes, like much of our language, from a Latin root, civis, which means citizen. The most accessible example is the corona civica, the garland wreath pictured on Roman emperors. It was an honor bestowed on someone who had saved a citizen of the city, typically in battle. It was a physical symbol of a citizen who deserved the honor of others because of (sorry, it was ancient Rome) his self-sacrificial performance.

I suspect I am not alone in identifying with—or partially resisting an identification with—my country rather than my municipality. I have often thought of myself as an American, but not often an Idahoan, much less a Boisean. When I lived in California, I thought of myself as Californian from time to time, mostly because I was labeled that way when I returned to visit family and friends up north. My primary self-identification for most of my life was—you guessed it—Christian. As I alluded to in my previous post, this identity trumped all others in my mind, and I concluded that it was so expansive I needn’t worry about other possible obligations or identities. I obviously participated in several other social spheres, and they didn’t all jive readily with my Christian identity, but I assumed that they should. (That caused me no shortage of consternation at work, but that’s a different topic).

To perpetuate a sense of civic responsibility, one has to have care, care for those around you, care for the environment you consider yourself a part of. There are practical limits to our ability to care. Care begins with self, typically extends to immediate family, extended family, friends, village, city, and so on. I envision civic responsibility as the first “imagined” step in social community. Self, family, friends, church, and social engagements have historically been levels of care based upon physical interaction and at least passing knowledge with the ones cared for. At the civic level, however, one likely does not know all who consider themselves part of the group. Nonetheless, artificial and sometimes physical boundaries are established to connect these people one to another for shared benefit. Of course, most of us are simply born into these already existing webs of community and thus may not feel the same sense of ownership and participation as those who forged the bonds.

As a Christian, I was taught a distinction between types of love. (Christians “love” to exploit the fact that Greek often has multiple words to describe what is translated as a single word in English. I can’t tell you many times I’ve heard, “In Greek, the word actually means…”) There is erotic love, brotherly love, and agape, selfless love. The latter is the love Jesus has for Christians, and that is the love, as Christians, we are supposed to imitate. For me, this meant that in a practical sense my love was spread so thin that it didn’t have energy to manifest in any concrete way. I loved the whole world. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud talks about the impossibility of maintaining this kind of love. The act of loving, he counters, is predicated on it being bestowed on some and not others. Loving everyone equally is not significantly different from loving no one at all.

Thus it was a revelation to me to begin to physically act out of care for my community and not just talk about it within the walls of a safe environment. I began to participate in an organization that provided meals and connections to vital services for the homeless. Later I participated with a friend in a project called Laundry Love, which washes clothes for those who can’t afford to do so. It turns out that caring for those in your community is actually more difficult than loving the entire world. It is humbling to be constantly reminded that my daily concerns are trivial compared to others. I participated in these activities in Isla Vista, an undergraduate enclave right next to the University of California, Santa Barbara. I didn’t like the place very much, and generally avoided it, although I lived right on the edge of it for six years. Once I began to get involved with the homeless, though, I was much more invested in the community. I cared more about what went on and took the things that happened in it more personally. I began to gain, in short, a sense of civic responsibility.

I have yet to nurture that sense of responsibility in my new community, and this likely has something to do with my general sense of disconnectedness. I have read people discussing the advent of virtual as opposed to physical communities, and I would be interested to hear from others for whom this has worked. It seems (ironically, since I am utilizing this virtual forum,) one cannot cultivate a sense of responsibility virtually in the same way. For me, it was valuable to physically participate in my local community, and that meant going beyond the narrow confines of my faith community.