01/23/13

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.