I'm a Human Version of the Giving Tree, and I'm Okay With That
BY MEGAN MILLER
This is a letter from a girl who loves fiercely, a girl who would gladly cut her heart into a million pieces and proceed to toss them around like confetti until none are left for herself. If you’re familiar with the story of “The Giving Tree,” insert my name every time it says “tree,” and you’ve got my metaphorical autobiography. I’ve learned to view that innate tendency to give as my greatest asset, but getting to this point wasn’t easy. Let me explain for all the other givers out there trying to make sure the world keeps turning.
Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” is a 1964 children’s book whose pages tell the tale of a generous apple tree’s interactions with a human during his life. In his childhood, the boy climbed high into the tree’s branches, ate her apples, and carved Me + T (i.e., Me + Tree) into her bark as a declaration of love. Then he grows older, and he only returns to visit the tree for selfish reasons. The tree continues to give parts of herself to the boy to ensure he remains happy. She gives him her apples to sell for money; she gives him her branches to build a house; she gives him her trunk to create a boat.
As these visits continue and the tree dwindles, a recurring affirmation appears in the book: “and the tree was happy.” By the end of the story, there is only a stump where the towering tree once stood. The boy, now an elderly man, returns to visit a final time. The tree laments the fact that she has nothing left to give him, but he (now too old to swing from her branches, too tired to climb or create new projects, and with teeth too weak to eat her apples) states that all he is searching for is “a quiet place to sit and rest.” Fortunately, a tree stump is the ideal seat . . . and “the tree was happy.”
Like this tree, I feel an undeniable sense of fulfillment after giving others what they need, but I wasn’t always certain just what I had to offer the people around me. I tried to compensate for this confusion by being frivolous with the resources I had. I spent my childhood and teen years handing out my apples, branches, and trunk to people I’ll never see again, people who didn’t understand the meaning of what they’d been handed. Friends faded out of my life, taking those pieces with them.
The good news? I still have the tree stump. I’ve come to believe the key to my giving is found in the stump, near the roots: empathy. Since recognizing this ability to understand and identify with the feelings of another person as my most powerful resource, I’ve learned to lend it out in the form of a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or a hand to hold.
Before, I would gladly sit for hours and allow others’ problems to consume me. I left interactions feeling empty, sick, and like a part of me was missing . . . and I thought I was crazy, because I loved that feeling. Now, I’ve realized that people don’t need me to provide a solution to the problem. They need me to be present while they work through the issue.
That feeling I thought I loved wasn’t about solving problems at all; it was about seeing people I love figure out how to survive on their own. Learning to give only my presence and empathy was a challenge at first. I was scared people wouldn’t have a use for what was left in the stump of my metaphorical tree. I was afraid of not being enough for them, of not doing enough for them. Fortunately, these fears couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Now, like the tree, I’m happy.
My question to you is simple: what’s in your tree stump after every other layer has been stripped away? Are you like me, harboring a sometimes unruly streak of empathy? Do you somehow always know exactly what will bring a smile to a face covered in tears? Do you have an innate confidence you’re desperate to share? Whatever it is you find at the core of yourself, give that. Allow it to radiate from you with reckless abandon and provide it to anyone who seems to be in need. From one Giving Tree to another, I promise it will be enough. I promise you will be enough.