When I was younger (as the Beatles say, “so much younger than today”), I remember reading Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” I thought it was a horribly sad story of unrequited love. A tree who loves a boy so much that it just waits and gives and gives and gets less and less in return. The young boy that climbed her branches and ate her apples was then taken advantage of and stripped of her fruit, her branches, her trunk, and eventually her stump was used as a seat.
The stump would also live for a long time. In her mind the boy’s life didn’t even span two years in tree time. The boy, now old man, would die and she would be left alone and little more than a stump.
As a boy, I admit that I would have my vision blurred with welling tears at the thought of how alone and empty the tree must feel. I could not understand why she would give so much and leave herself nothing.
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” 1 Corinthians 13:11
It has taken me 40 years to understand the beauty of that poem. Perhaps it is because I have a daughter turning into a teenager. Each day she reminds me that she is less dependent on me and becoming her own person. Each day I see that this independence from me is part of the process. Each day I realize that my sense of love isn’t found in the hugs of little arms around my neck from a small smile running to the door when I come home, but from the hug I gave back.
The world around us is forever changing. Everything in this universe is impermanent and it is that temporal limited engagement that we have in this universe that makes each moment precious and special. Some use that time to be heathenist and consume as much pleasurable experiences as possible before they die. Others put their faith in an eternity after death and spend their time consumed only with the next life. Most are too busy surviving day-t0-day to ask any questions and the world just passes by without notice until it is over.
But since the start of my Buddhist practice, I have developed an understanding that happiness, value of living, a sense of meaning doesn’t come from what you get from your time here. In the end, what is the point since all accumulations are temporary and you can’t take them with you after life. The real wisdom to successfully living is in what you give while you are here in this world.
Receiving a gift is a joy that lasts only as long as the gift remains new and useful. Eventually the hedonic treadmill of our pleasure center will get used to it in our lives and the excitement fades. Meanwhile, when we give a gift, that sense of sharing, connecting, providing joy is written on our hearts. It stays with us and it always renewed with every remembrance.
What we get out of this world in status and money is personal only to us and the energy and stress given to attaining and keeping it is often miserable and potentially dangerous to our mental and physical health. However, when we give of ourselves. When we volunteer, help a neighbor, raise a child, love a sister, or help an old lady across the street; these are acts that influence our own spirit, the spirit of others and the collective spirit of the world.
I can’t remember reading an article not long ago (I do not remember the citation) that a smile has a lasting effect of everyone within a one mile radius. That your smile is contagious like a yawn. Smiling at a guy in a gas station will daisy chain from him to other people until the cashier at the Wal-Mart a mile away is looking at a smiling woman with groceries who may have otherwise offered a scowl.
Looking back at that story of the Giving Tree, I understand the beauty of it now. The tree wasn’t seeking anything in return. She loved the boy. She wanted him to be happy and that happiness must have been written within him someplace and carried to the world he left to explore. She offered her apples, branches and trunk– but who knows what the boy offered to the world.
Certainly the boy did not appreciate his tree or his place in the universe, but the story wasn’t about “The Giving Boy.” The tree embodied a love possibly only a parent could understand without development– an unconditional love where (as the Beatles once said) “the love you take is equal to the love you make.”