Friday, July 04, 2014

And The Tree Was Happy

One of the best books I know is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  I read it each year to the class; sometimes numerous times, I give it away as a present to new parents, I talk about it often, I think about it even more.  It’s one of those powerful books with an influential message about being selfless.  In this era where narcissism is so central to our lives it’s more of an important message now than ever before.  I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately; about narcissism and how it has now become a human ‘value’ to put oneself first.  Now, I think that putting oneself first is the only way that someone can get ahead in this world, don’t get me wrong; you need to look out for yourself.  But I think this is true as a product of the way we live now rather than because it should be something we hold fast to as a good value for humanity.  Over the past few years I’ve seen the old mantra of ‘don’t’ let others dictate who you are’ turn into ‘never mind other people, just do what is right for you’ (or even, ‘don’t let others hold you back’). Seems like a subtle and positive shift but I’ve been wondering whether it really is.  The former is about empowering yourself the latter is about stepping on others to get to where you need to be. I’ve amplified that, of course to make a point.  They are both about empowerment, but the latter is empowerment without considering the needs of anyone else, and sometimes at the expense of others too.
That seems right though, doesn’t it?  One shouldn’t think of others, one should only consider oneself when making any decision shouldn’t they?  What about your children, your parents, your partner, your family?  Are they a consideration or should they be?  I’m guessing if you have them your children come first. What about other people’s children?  No, too removed…  So what about when people don’t treat your children nicely… I mean if you don’t treat others with fundamental consideration then why should they consider you and yours?  They won’t.  Never mind other people, just do what’s right for you.  They’ll not mind you, you’ll not mind them and together we can all look out for ourselves.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world.
I’ve been thinking a lot about being selfless or selfish; giving and receiving.  They are fundamental to the human condition and there’s a big question mark that hangs in the air right now over my head about how we all fit together when it comes to giving and receiving. Sure, I do it – we all do.  Everyone gives.  Everyone receives.  It’s a fundamental part of being human to give to others.  What I never really contemplated though was that there are different ways that people give.  It’s in the capacity of the person doing the giving that brings about the difference and I think somehow they are related to those so-called positive mantras we keep telling ourselves – ‘don’t let others hold you back’ and ‘never mind other people, just do what is right for you’.   People give to the extent they believe in this.  It doesn’t make either type of giving any less important or positive but there are subtle differences.  There are other types of giving but I’ve narrowed it down to two that I see most commonly:
The Giving Gesture
Giving in Absentia: The Giving Tree
Perhaps there are better names for this.  I don’t know.  I just made that shit up on the spot because that’s how things happen in my brain.
The Giving Gesture
This is the most common type of giving. It’s a present, an invite, a phone call, a random text, a donation, a helping hand, an offer, cooking a meal for someone, etc.  It’s straightforward and everyone knows where they stand. It’s basically a grand gesture and that gesture says:  I’m thinking of you.  I care about you.  I want you to know that I’m here; right now, I’m here.  It makes someone else feel good and it makes the giver feel good too, because they are giving something tangible – an experience or a *something* that one can reference later; “remember that time we…”, “you know that time when I helped you…”
This type of giving is important because on the one hand it gives that person in need something tangible and on the other hand The Giver can put a time limit on it. It saves The Giver from being drained and also gives them something tangible to take away from the experience too: This is what I’m willing to give you.  I will give you this now.  See this thing, this thing is tangible and it’s for you and we can both share it.  There’s a lot of happiness involved in this type of giving because it’s visible.  One can always refer back to it.  One is usually celebrated for doing it and the person receiving knows who to thank and what to thank them for.  It will make someone’s day!  They will remember it.  It’s a lovely thing to do and people who do it a lot are thought of as lovely people.  Everybody wins.  It’s the Facebook of giving.  Everyone sees it… it’s on the wall.  It works well with our new positive mantra –Never mind others, just do what is right for you.  This type of giving allows you to give on your terms.  This is right for me right now and so therefore I’ll do it. If it wasn’t convenient, I wouldn’t do it but that's okay because it's giving you something you need.
Everyone does this type of giving.  Even Mother Teresa did it.
Giving In Absentia: The Giving Tree
Why absentia?   How can you give while absent?  Well you can’t, not really – but the absence is not absence of being there, it’s the absence of ego involved.  Ego is the thing that causes us to think of ourselves.  Of course, as we’ve established, in order to get anywhere in life you must think of yourself first but when it comes to giving it’s possible to do this without ego and still not be degraded by the act giving.  This kind of giving isn’t quite as visible as The Gesture, nor can you always reflect on something tangible afterwards.  It can be difficult to accommodate someone else and let’s face it, it’s usually without reward.  The person receiving might not even know they are being given something!  The gesture, if there is one, usually goes unnoticed.
An example of this might be bringing up someone’s name in a positive way in a conversation where they might not even be present because you know that doing so will shine a light on them in a positive way and may bring about a good thing for them (perhaps talking up a co-worker to the boss or helping to enable a someone else’s friendship to grow even if you may not even be part of it).  Maybe it’s being there for someone; listening whenever you are needed and being totally on call, anytime.  It might be offering to be there to sit with them when you know they might be alone, even if you didn’t feel like being social or you are missing out on something.  Maybe it’s letting someone else know that your mutual friend needs TLC even though that means that they get the TLC and you don’t.  Or maybe the giving might take the form of letting someone take your place in something, thereby enabling them to step forward and shine for a while even if it means that the focus is off you. It might even be a loving thought you have towards someone – a hope for them that is really beyond a fleeting thought but a truly intentioned moment devoted totally to them. This type of giving is not about a shared reward.  It’s totally about the other person and probably, no one will remember who did the giving or even know… but if they do know they’ll never forget, trust me.
This type of giving doesn’t fit with the positive mantra but one doesn’t have to be degraded in order to do it either.  I think that’s what’s so difficult about this type of giving.  We’re so obsessed with building ourselves up that we’ve forgotten that once we’re all built it’s just superficial.  So you flirted with his girlfriend to get a wife but your friend is gone – who cares, they weren’t a real friend anyway if they stand in your way… and you took an opportunity you saw was for someone else because it’s cut throat out there, if you didn't do it someone else would have - look out for you, that's important... and now you earn more but your co-workers can see how you got there, and phew, thank goodness you removed yourself from the situation where you were being drained by someone because their problems make you feel bad and you don’t want that, no matter how temporary.  You've saved yourself from that little 'I don't feel good right now so I'm not going to do it' moment that we all kid ourselves isn't part of being human but actually is.  You’ve done all that and you have fulfilled your mantra – never mind others, just do what is right for you.  And so, now what?  Nice Empire you have there.  The way we're going everyone will have that same empire.
In the book, the tree gives unconditionally.  It makes her happy, you see, to give to someone something they need to help them be better. Perhaps it is appropriate for Silverstein to have made such a selfless being a tree rather than a human. It’s difficult to give to someone else in a way that helps them without giving you accolades.  It’s even more difficult to think of someone else before yourself.  You’d think that the tree would be degraded… but she isn’t.  By the end, although the boy will never fully understand the extent to which he has been helped by the tree and that tree; having given almost everything she can to the boy she loves, they are still both fulfilled in their own way.  I always wonder at the end about how love is fuel for the best things and ego and narcissism isn’t.  I wonder about the people I know who are like that.  I wonder about narcissism and how it fuels ego and how is it that we have made it such a positive mantra to push someone aside and step in their place, calling it self-fulfilment or strength of character and positive self-image.  I wonder about where we are going with this.  I wonder where we will end up.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can be a better giver and indeed who are the people who have given me the things that have truly helped me in my life.  I’m thinking about The Giving Tree.  I think you should read it.  Really read it.