The Giving Tree: A guide to renewable energy from a tree and a boy

From The Giving Tree, by Shel Silvestein

Everyone knows The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein’s classic parable about a boy and a tree.

The tale is as simple as it is achingly beautiful. As a child, the boy loves the tree; he is happy playing on her branches and enjoying her apples. But as he ages, he gradually strips the tree of everything she has to offer — her fruit (which he sells for money), her branches (which he needs to build a shelter), and even her trunk (which he uses to sail away). Throughout, the tree gives selflessly, while the boy grows unhappy with age. Though his needs are met, he frowns, wrinkled, stooped, and then shriveled, bit by bit losing all of his youthful joy. In the end, the tree is bare, but the boy is the one empty.

I bring up this classic parable because it was my earliest roadmap in life. When I first read it as a child, I admired the tree so much that I resolved to set down my roots next to hers. I decided I would help those in need and do so without expectation of reward. Then, I thought, like the tree, I would be happy.

The power of a childhood vow lies in its simplicity and purity, precisely what we shed, like leaves, as we grow.

With experience and time, I learned I could never be as selfless a creature as Silverstein’s tree. I discovered I wasn’t always so ready to give. And when I did, I needed the occasional gratitude and the company of others.


I’ll be honest. Too often, I have been less “tree” and more “boy.” At times, I have acted selfishly. Other times I meant well, but felt too overwhelmed to engage — by the power of evil to disrupt and money to corrupt, and the countless tragedies made to feel near by the immediacy of the Internet. I allowed myself to feel helpless, even though I truly believe that every act of goodness makes a difference. In fleeing the bad news, I sometimes lost sight of the good as well. As my husband said after a recent spate of grisly news stories had flattened me, “You’ll never see a headline that says: ‘1.5 billion people were kind to each other today.’ But they were.”

It’s true. They were. And it was far from easy, because kindness isn’t complacent. Kindness is more than admiring, or even supporting, the work of others. Kindness is work. Eventually, you have to leave the sidelines, roll up your sleeves.


My friend Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher and author, shared this story with me. It is the tale of an inner city school principal:

Every day, she made sandwiches for the many homeless people in her neighborhood. Several days a week, when she got home from school, if she was not too tired, she would go to her kitchen and make several dozen sandwiches. She took pleasure in preparing and distributing this food. She didn’t care if she was thanked for it or mind if her offering was refused. She was doing it because it simply felt right to do.

After some time, the local media found out about her after-school activity and she became a minor celebrity in her area. Inspired by her work, neighbors and friends began to send her money for her ministry.

To their surprise, they all received their money back with a short note that read, “Make your own damn sandwiches.”

When my time on the sidelines has gone on too long, I remember this practical woman and get back to making my best sandwiches for this hungry world. When my spirits flag, I recall the Christian mystic Thomas Merton who counseled: “Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps bring about its opposite. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value of the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”


I know these observations are simple, almost elementary, and frankly I wondered if they were worth sharing. In the end I decided they were, because as David Foster Wallace once said, ‘the most obvious, important realities are often the ones hardest to see and talk about.’

And so I do my best to notice what is plain to see, to not lose sight of what is true, and to feel my roots planted next to those of the tree in whose image I grew. And when I succeed, and my energy is renewed, I am astonished anew.