Contribution to Symposium, First Things, 49:42-43, January 1995.
Several reasons could be offered for reading The Giving Tree to one’s children. It conveys important truths about our human situation and about human giving. It might induce appropriate attitudes and salutary sentiments or inspire fine conduct by imitation. And it could occasion educative moral discourse—about giving and receiving, about loving and being loved, and about what makes for human happiness.
All of us live and flourish only because we are the beneficiaries of unconditional and unmerited generosity, natural and human. We are graciously fed with the bounty of nature, from mother’s milk to the fruits of the earth, and not because we deserve it. Beginning even before we are born, we live necessarily as consumers of the substance of others—of their bodies and labors, their time and energy, their attention and care, their love. We live using up not only the renewable resources—like leaves and apples—but also the irreplaceable essence—branches and trunk—of others, especially of our parents, and most especially of our mothers.
The giving tree, identified as female, is an image of mother love. She loves the boy selflessly and unconditionally, because he is her own. Because she loves him, which is to say, because she desires his happiness above all else, she gives to him without condition and without measure. Her own happiness consists in contributing to his happiness: Only when she thinks she has nothing left to give him is she not happy to see him, and her happiness is restored—as is her dignity: “Straightening herself up as much as she could”—when she realizes that she can still give him what he needs. Blessed is the mother who is able to help her child, at whatever age. This truth about parental happiness is surely known by any loving parent who has been compelled to watch impotently while his child is suffering.