Selflessness, as it applies to trees and people, among other things

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

As evidenced by my latest blog post, my favorite children’s book of all time is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. This is the heartwarming story of a boy who is best friends with a tree. The boy loves the tree, and the tree loves the boy. The tree loves the boy so much that though he has outgrown his days of playing hide-and-seek in her branches, she is still willing to give up a part of her, literally, to help him in his times of need. She ends up letting him take her apples, branches, and trunk for his personal gain. Even in the end, when she is a mere stump, she gives herself to the boy (now an old man) as a place to rest. To this day, whenever I hear a touching story about someone who has made sacrifices to help others, I am reminded of the tree and her complete selflessness. And, yes, I cry a little.

What is altruism? Is it simply taking care of a sick friend, or leaving the last cookie for someone else, or something more? Need one give up an appendage or vital organ, as the tree did, in order to be considered altruistic? Altruism, to me, is the practice of always putting others before oneself. I don’t believe that one can be pre-conditioned to be altruistic. Altruism is a mindset, a way of thinking. If genes could truly be manipulated to the point of creating habits one should naturally acquire through upbringing, then that is grand science indeed. Surely, one can be predisposed towards alcoholism, or depression, or heart disease, but altruism?

Let’s step away from this dilemma for a moment and imagine that yes, it is possible to genetically manipulate aspects of a yet-unborn human being’s personality. If I had the opportunity to make my children altruistic, would I? The answer is no. A deep, resounding no. I believe that altruism isn’t something that should be forced upon a person. And, call me a pessimist (I’m actually not, I promise!), but altruism simply isn’t natural. Species have not propagated on this planet due to selflessness. They have gone forth and multiplied because the fittest animal was the one who won over the mate and created the next generation. I have seen animals fight over mates, but never have I seen one animal bowing out of the competition because he wanted his friend to get the girl and be happy instead.

I also believe that personality traits should be learned, not bestowed. Your personality is a result of your upbringing, the surroundings into which you were born. If your personality means that you’re naturally altruistic, the props to you! So, given the opportunity, I would pass it up. I don’t want to have such a profound influence on my child before their birth. I would think higher of a parent whose child’s good personality was due to a warm and loving growing environment rather than a series of chemical reactions carried out in the sterile catacombs of a laboratory.

Do I still love The Giving Tree and its noble message? Yes. Would I want to make my child that way? No. Though I greatly admire and respect those who continually put others before themselves, that is a choice that they have made, not their parents. But sometimes, it just makes you happy to see others happy. And that’s what makes altruism worth it.

’”I am sorry,” sighed the tree. “I wish that I could give you something—but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump.”

“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy, “just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.”

“Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, “well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.” And the boy did.  And the tree was happy.

~Shel Silverstein



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