ESSAY

Week 5

The Missing Piece of the Giving Tree

By Peter Friedrichs

I have a bone to pick with Shel Silverstein. You may know who he is. You may have encountered Shel Silverstein’s poems and books as I did, as a parent reading his funny, silly, witty poems to your children. Or you may have discovered his somewhat subversive writings on your own, as a child or even a teen. I’ve enjoyed Silverstein’s word play since reading from his book Where the Sidewalk Ends to my two daughters when they were small. They liked his silly rhymes and I like the sly way he slid some social commentary into many of his pieces. But, as I say, I have a bone to pick with Shel Silverstein.

It has dawned on me recently that two of his books, perhaps two of his most beloved books, books that have sold millions of copies, books that I read to my girls and books that I’ve read to children here at our Day School, are sending unhealthy and unhelpful messages to our children. One is titled The Missing Piece and the other is The Giving Tree. Bear with me while I give you a synopsis of these stories and then we’ll find out why I won’t read them to our children any more.

The Missing Piece centers on a being that is in the shape of a circle with a wedge cut out of it. It tells the story of this circle-thing’s search for its missing piece, the part that will fit perfectly and make it whole. The circle-thing rolls all over, encountering life but never being fulfilled. It comes across pieces of all shapes and sizes, but none of them is a perfect fit. Some pieces are too round, others are too square. A piece it meets looks like a perfect fit but turns him down. Eventually, the circle-being discovers a piece that’s a perfect match for what it’s missing. It’s ecstatic! Now the circle-thing is whole and complete! It rolls around easily, instead of bumping along as it used to. In fact, it rolls so well that it misses out on a lot of things it used to enjoy as it bumped along. Eventually, the circle-thing decides that it’s better off without this perfect piece and it discards it, happily rolling and bumping away into an apparently self-satisfied future.

The Giving Tree is all about the relationship between an apple tree and a boy who grows into a man. The tree loves the boy. The young boy sits in its shade. He climbs the tree. He picks the apples from the tree. They are both happy. As the boy grows, he finds other interests. He begins to show up at the tree less and less. But every time the boy, then later the man, shows up, the tree tells him how much it has missed him. It offers a piece of itself to satisfy the boy’s needs. First, the tree gives up all its apples, so the boy can sell them and make money. Then the boy-turned-man needs wood to build a house, so the tree gives up its branches. The man then stays away for a long time, and the tree is lonely. The next time we see him, the man is middle-aged. He tells the tree he is tired and that he wants a boat to carry him away from all his worries. So the tree says, “I don’t have a boat, but you can make one out of my trunk.” And so the man cuts down the tree to make a boat, leaving only a stump. After many years, the frail and elderly many returns to the tree, who tells him that it has nothing left to give. The man tells him that he is tired and just wants a place to rest. And so the tree offers up what it has, its stump. And there the man rests. And, the book says, “the tree was happy.”

The book jacket of The Giving Tree calls this “a tender story, touched with sadness, aglow with consolation.” It says that “Shel Silverstein has created a moving parable for readers of all ages that offers an affecting interpretation of the gift of giving and a serene acceptance of another’s capacity to love in return.” And the jacket on The Missing Piece calls it a “fable that gently probes the nature of quest and fulfillment.”  

Both of these stories are alluring, aren’t they? Because we’ve all been there. These stories speak to us because they are the stories of our lives. How many of us have been in relationships where we give, and we give, and we give, yearning that we will just be loved in return? It might have been when we were children, seeking the affirmation of our parents. We played sports we didn’t like to get our father’s attention. Or we always kept our rooms neat as a pin, making our beds every morning to make sure our mom would appreciate us. Maybe it happened when we got older, when we stayed in and studied when we would rather have gone out with friends, all in an effort to make sure we got an “A” from that professor we put on a pedestal. Perhaps we found the person of our dreams who ignored or, worse yet, abused us, but we kept on giving and giving to get them to love us in the way we needed to be loved, until we turned invisible to ourselves and the rest of the world. How many of us have been, or still are, like The Giving Tree?

And I’d venture to guess that we’ve all been like that circle-thing in The Missing Piece, too. Feeling like we’re incomplete.  Feeling like we’re inadequate. Feeling like we just need to find the right thing to fit into that gaping hole in ourselves. And so we tried and tried to fill it up with things we thought or hoped would make us complete. Drugs, alcohol, sex, food, whatever addiction or predilection we thought would work, or at least numb us enough to forget our incompleteness for a while. Or we sought out that “perfect person,” our soul mate, the one who would fit just right and make us complete, engaging in serial relationships that were ultimately unsatisfying because things didn’t fit our image of perfection and wholeness. Or maybe we found the perfect missing piece and still weren’t satisfied, so we discarded it in hopes of finding someone or something else that would better satisfy our craving.

So, how did all that work out for us? At best, it left us feeling like a shadow of our former selves, a mere stump when once we were magnificent, blossoming fruit trees. Or maybe we were that piece discarded by the side of the road by someone looking for a newer, better model. Perhaps you’re still acting like that circle-thing on an endless quest, still looking for that thing, that perfect other thing, that will make you whole. I spent a whole lot of my life like that circle-thing, feeling like there was something or someone “out there” that would complete me and make me happy. And it nearly cost me my marriage, my family and my life.

The illusions, the very dangerous illusions that these two stories sell to us is that to be loved, we’ve got to give ourselves away and that the holes inside us need to be filled by others. That we are somehow defective, or at least insufficient, as we are and that we need others – other things, other people – to make us whole. And while I agree that we are social creatures and that our identity is formed in relationships – relationships with other people and our connectedness to all that is – I despise the premise that our imperfections somehow make us broken, inadequate or defective. And that, to be loved, to be worthy of love, we’ve got to give away who and what we are.

What does it take to be worthy of love? What does it mean to be “whole?” The answer to these questions is so simple to state and so hard to achieve. What it takes to be worthy of love and what it means to be whole is to be fully who we are, who we were born to be, warts and all. Life doesn’t demand perfection from us. It simply demands that we allow ourselves to be who and what we are, in all our glory and all our shortcomings. To be perfectly imperfect people. Not to strive for perfection, but to strive to live into our true and authentic selves. There is a wonderful Jewish parable that tells of Zusya, a rabbi who, on his death bed, said to those gathered around, “In the world to come I shall not be asked ‘Why were you not Moses.’ I will be asked ‘Why were you not Zusya.’”[1] Jewish theologian Martin Buber put it this way: “Every single person is a new thing in the world and is called upon to fill his particularity in this world. Every person’s foremost task is the actualization of his unique, unprecedented and never recurring potentialities, and not the repetition of something that another, be it even the greatest, has already achieved.”

In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer gives us an image of a tree very different than The Giving Tree: the Jack Pine. The Jack Pine grows in the Boundary Waters Wildlife Refuge along the Canadian border. Jack pines, we are told, “are not lumber trees and they don’t win many beauty contests, either. But to me this valiant old tree, solitary on its own rocky point, is as beautiful as a living thing can be…In the calligraphy of its shape against the sky is written the strength of character and perseverance, survival against wind, drought, cold, heat, disease…In its silence it speaks of wholeness, an integrity that comes from being what you are.” [2]

Parker Palmer speaks of wholeness and integrity as living a life that is not divided. About a union between “soul and role.” Wholeness springs from within, not from finding external sources of fulfillment, whatever “missing pieces” we may feel we’re lacking. We live divided lives when we act in ways that are at odds with the light that burns within. “Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished,” he writes, “or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls.” In contrast, wholeness, completion and the love that attend it flow naturally when we align how we are with who we are, living a life, as Palmer says, “divided no more.”  

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, but I do believe in mid-course assessments and midlife adjustments. Perhaps now is the time, or perhaps soon it will be, to ask ourselves which kind of tree we want to be: a Giving Tree, or a Jack Pine. Are we like that circle-thing, constantly searching for wholeness and validation and love and completion from others, or do we embrace the holes that make us uniquely us, never repeatable in all the Universe? Do we lament our inadequacies because we’re not Moses, or Martin, or do we live fully into being the Zusya that we were born to be?  

I leave you with this brief prayer from Rainer Maria Rilke: “May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children. Then in these swelling and ebbing currents, these deepening tides moving out, returning, I will sing you as no one ever has, streaming through widening channels into the open sea.”[3]

This day and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.

[1] Martin Buber, The Way of Man According to the Teaching of Hasidism, 17.
[2] Parker Palmer, quoting Douglas Wood, A Hidden Wholeness, 3.
[3] Rilke, The Book of Hours I, 12.

Rev. Peter Friedrichs