Friday, December 6, 2013

The Giving Tree and Stumps

It’s December and the season of giving.  It surrounds us during the holidays.  Everywhere we turn, there’s a message about giving. We throw ourselves into a frenzy at times to buy gifts for those special people in our lives. The Salvation Army rings bells. Churches take up special donations and schools adopt needy families.  PBS gives us amazing Christmas shows only to interrupt our viewing pleasure by asking for donations to show our appreciation . . . well actually that happens year round, doesn’t it? 

In reality, we are expected to give year round and I have to admit that sometimes the asking gets old, unnerves me, and frequently makes me feel like a jerk for saying no.  For example, every time I go through the line at Whole Foods, I am asked, “Would you like to donate your bag refund to  (blah, blah, blah – the charity of THEIR choice?)”   I bring my bag so that I can save trees and avoid a bag charge. That was the purpose of starting the whole “bring your own bag” thing so now I’m supposed to bring my bag and let you charge me so that you can give money for a tax deduction?  That doesn’t seem right and it sometimes makes me downright nasty in the checkout line . . . the poor cashier. 
And then there’s St. Jude’s Hospital.  They seem to be everywhere, especially at Christmas.  I usually give at least one time but then I am asked every single time I ever buy anything anywhere I go where a store is participating, which seems like it’s everyone.  Wouldn’t you love to have their marketing director at your place of business?  To top it off, I always end up feeling guilty and like a heel saying no to St. Jude’s even though I’ve already given because who doesn’t love Marlo Thomas/That Girl and want to help children who are sick? Shopping and guilt should never go together in my mind but St. Jude’s,  you are doing it to me. . . LOL.  Even the IRS chimes in and asks us to give more than we have to because after you’ve given them your taxes; they ask you if you want to give money to the next presidential campaign.  For me, it’s hard to understand how the act of giving graduated to a marketing/tax shelter event that in reality seems to miss the boat entirely with what genuine giving is all about.

This year, our family has been the recipient of genuine giving and perhaps being in that position is what has made some of the other “giving” I just described so irritating to me.  My daughter’s house caught on fire in May and in July, a close family friend sustained a spinal cord injury in an accident.  In both of these cases, the true gift this Christmas is that both of these young people are still alive.  For this, we are all eternally grateful.  But the outpouring of giving, financially and emotionally, in both cases, is like nothing I’ve ever seen and to me, represents the true act of giving. 

Acts like: 
  • prayers, prayers, and more prayers….continual prayers;
  • ongoing  letters and notes of support;  
  • sincere questions like, “what can I do?”
  • collections of clothes, gift cards, anything that was needed,
  • organizing anything that needed to be organized or taking care of business that was immensely time consuming,
  • true concern shown in questions like, “how are they doing?” months after the initiating event.
This is giving, real giving. Mother Teresa said “Give, but give until it hurts.” That’s a really big order. What did she really mean? If you go back and read the story behind that quote, Mother Teresa was talking about sacrificial giving – not Whole Foods giving or even Salvation Army giving.  Sacrificial giving is going the extra mile when it makes your journey longer and more inconvenient.  It’s giving something that you really want to hold on to and aren’t quite ready to let go off.  It’s giving that $100 that you truly need in your budget.  It’s taking the time to pray for someone when you could be doing something that’s centered on your own desires or pleasures.  I saw that in the people who cared and are still caring and giving to my daughter and her family and Thomas and his bride, Natalie. How many of us really do this?  It’s something to think about as we begin our frenzy of holiday giving . . . what is true giving and what does it look like in our daily lives?

Obviously, giving is not just financial – every day we are asked to give in our relationships. Relationship giving is the other lesson that has been smacking me over the head this year.  I’m going to fully disclose up front that this seems to be the harder lesson in giving for me and I don’t really know that the answers are as clear as with the Mother Teresa quote.  How much are we required to give in relationships before we are taken advantage of or stripped of important needs for our own self-preservation, peace, and joy?  I’ve always been a “give til it hurts” relationship person and it hasn’t always worked out well for me.

When my kids were little, I discovered a Shel Silverstein book called, The Giving Tree.  The parable is about a tree that loves a little boy.  Every day, the little boy comes to the tree, eats its apples, swings from its branches, and sleeps in its shade. The tree loves the little boy, the boy loves the tree, and they are both happy.  
But as the boy grows older, the boy asks more of the tree, the tree continues to give but the tree isn’t happy anymore. The happiness came from two-way giving, two-way sharing, and two-way receiving.  It was reciprocal.  The boy keeps taking until the tree is cut down to a stump.  The parable is supposed to be about the gift of giving and the serene acceptance of another’s capacity to give (taken directly from the inside cover of book); but one day when I was reading this book to my kids, I got stuck at the stump part. I remember veering from the storyline  and saying aloud . . . “oh my God, I am the stump.” 

That book has been on our bookshelf since 1986 but I’m not sure I ever read it to my kids again because shortly after that “aha” day, I realized that I would never be able to serenely accept my husband’s incapacity to give and our marriage ended in divorce. 

The message of that book has rolled around in my brain for nearly 30 years now. Most likely, we all have found ourselves in relationships that require lopsided giving.  It is better to give than to receive, right? The challenge for me in all of these relationships has been to maintain the tenets of my faith but change or end the relationship before I’m the stump.  The Giving Tree parable ends with the boy, who is now an old man, coming back to the tree stump because he doesn’t need much anymore except a place to sit.  The tree is happy and content again.  I admit that the parable of The Giving Tree was lost on me because I just didn’t want to be the stump who was happy to just have someone sit on me.  Sorry Shel.

So back to this year.  Would Mother Teresa have applied her words, “give until it hurts” to relationships as well?  We are called to love and to show it by giving patience and kindness.  We are called to rejoice in truth not unrighteousness and we aren’t supposed to focus on hurts or wrongs that are suffered.  We are taught that love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things.  We are also taught that love is not jealous or arrogant and that it doesn’t seek its own or act unbecomingly.  What happens when you are the giving and loving one and you run into the one who is exhibiting all those things that love and giving are not? What are we called to do when we run into a person who will cut you down to a stump and won’t even come back to sit on you except to gloat?   And what if that person is a member of our family? Can we walk away from those relationships and still be a person of faith with a clear conscience?

Admittedly, my thoughts on this are sometimes murky at best because they are mired in very deep emotions.  I don’t profess to have it figured out, but I try to walk through these problems with balance and fairness.  Everyday in my office, I counsel kids who are givers and kids who are takers.  I do my best to teach them the tenets of character (and in my mind’s eye…faith) that will help them grow to be an adult who is able to give and love in genuine ways.  But I also have to teach them how to navigate life without becoming a stump that has nothing to give because everything has been taken from them – tough line to walk. 

It’s a fact that the world is full of givers and takers – in childhood and in adulthood.  The sad reality is that there are broken people in the world who may always remain broken but I don’t believe we are called to fix them or enable them to continue being takers.  For some people, giving more will not teach them to give – it only gives them the opportunity to take more.  For me, this is one of the most difficult facts of life to accept because I’m a fixer at heart.  I want to be surrounded by all the joys of life and I want everyone that I love to experience that as well. 

Even though 2013 has been a year of some pretty significant losses, it has also been a year of love, laughter, joy, and many opportunities to watch God’s miracles unfold.  Thank you to everyone who has been part of the miracle and who have said yes to giving generously.  Some of those miracles reminded me that we miss so much when we don’t keep our eyes and hearts  open to seeing and believing but rather get bogged down in some of the sadness of life.   During this Advent season, may you be blessed with the vision of a child’s eyes, the joy that abides in the heart of a true giver, and the peace that comes from always trying to do your best with those you encounter.

By the way, if you google “The Giving Tree,” lots of things come up that are kind of interesting.  First of all, this picture comes up that is NOT in the book.  The thought about loving him more than she loved herself has been added by someone to the original artwork and it wasn’t part of Shel Silverstein’s verse.

Oddly enough, while doing this “after the thought/writing” research for this blog, I discovered a brand new song  released about a month ago by the Plain White T’s that mirrors my “stump aha moment.” I don’t feel so badly now about missing Shel’s point of the book in 1986….LOL – at least I’m not the only one.  And I'm not the only mom who read the book to her kids.  Here is a link to the video of the song (sorry for the ad).  

 If all you wanted was love

Why would you use me up

Cut me down, build a boat, and sail away

When all I wanted to be was your giving tree

Settle down, build a home, and make you happy?

Is it possible to be "a giving tree" and be happy?  Of course it is, but as you can see from this beautiful necklace, only if you are full and complete with your leaves, apples, branches, and roots because that's really the only time you can truly give.

If you’ve never read The Giving Tree, here is a link to a video of the entire book, rather nicely done:

And here is a link to the online donation site for St. Jude's.  I love St. Jude's and over the years, we have had some students who were recipients of their research and generosity.  If you didn't know it, they don't bill children for their services so all donations go 100% to care and research. It's really a great hospital to donate to.  

And you have to love the way Marlo carries on her dad's work so gallantly. Here's a video of Marlo and Jimmy Fallon and the kids at St. Jude's - precious: