Viewpoints

Tots To Teens

Published: Sunday April 20, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday April 21, 2014 MYT 7:22:20 PM

Making a real difference

Selflessness can come in many forms. And sometimes, what we think is selflessness, isn’t.

Easter, in Malaysia, isn’t celebrated as widely as Halloween or Christmas, and is still more a religious event than a commercial one. Though chocolate eggs and bunnies are available in most supermarket chains in the weeks approaching today, Easter Sunday.

Whatever our personal beliefs about and interpretations of the festival and its historical and/or cultural significance, it is generally acknowledged as a time of rebirth and renewal, with self-sacrifice the sub-text.

When discussing a possible Easter-themed column with my editors, we thought I might highlight books about selflessness, and so I’ve decided to write about two stories: Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince.

I first read The Giving Tree after an acquaintance told me how it inspired her. Reading it, I thought “Are you kidding me?” I kept waiting for the boy to have an epiphany and stop acting like a jerk, but he doesn’t. I guess that’s realistic, but I can’t understand why anyone would be inspired by the book.

I imagine there are those who regard The Giving Tree story as a fine example of generosity and gallantry. It doesn’t inspire me to any acts of altruism, though. It just makes me mad. In my opinion, if you give this book to a child, you’re saying, “This is what you can expect in a relationship: One person doing all the giving, the other all the taking.”

I feel it’s significant that the tree is depicted as female. Women are often expected to be the givers in a relationship and I’m horror-struck that there might be little girls encouraged to see the tree as a role model. We are supposed to give tirelessly and selflessly? What a load of garbage.

Throughout the story, the boy never thanks the tree. Ever. He’s only concerned with what he can get from her. It’s always about him. He never once says how good she’s been to him and he never asks her if she needs anything. Sounds like a one-sided, soul-sucking “relationship” to me.

It’s been said that Silverstein didn’t mean for The Giving Tree to be for kids, but that he wrote it as a satirical comment on a particular type of dysfunctional relationship. That may be true, but it remains that there are too many people out there who recommend this book as a guide to being a good friend/wife/mother, etc.

When I described The Happy Prince to a friend recently, she reacted the same way I did when I first read The Giving Tree. I admit that, superficially, the Prince does sound like he’s a bit of an insufferable prig. However, it’s just not the case. The Happy Prince is noble, kind and generous. He gives away everything he has, yet, unlike the tree, he doesn’t come across as a pushover.

This may be because the Prince acts independently. He sees suffering and responds with compassion instead of simply giving into the demands of a petulant, ungrateful and greedy boy. The problem with the tree is that, although big hearted, she also strikes me as a victim, abused by the boy whose needs overshadow her own and cause her to lose herself. That recurring phrase, “And the tree was happy”, may cause many to sigh happily but it only makes me roll my eyes. While those the Happy Prince helps are in genuine need, the boy in The Giving Tree is a lazy freeloader. If only the tree had dropped a branch on his head.

The Happy Prince is also beautifully written, full of richly sensuous descriptions and light touches of humour. The swallow who befriends the Prince falls in love with a water reed. “It is a ridiculous attachment,” twittered the other swallows, “she has no money, and far too many relations” and when he tires of her, “She has no conversation,” he said, “and I am afraid that she is a coquette, for she is always flirting with the wind.” Wilde’s word play is as sly as ever, but here the famous irony and acerbic wit is tempered with warmth and sweetness as lives are blessed by the kindness of the Happy Prince.

The swallow is at first quite focused on his own needs and desires, but the Prince’s thoughtfulness brings out the best in the bird, and a close friendship forms as the pair work together to bring joy to those who need it most. This is not a one-sided relationship, but one founded on mutual respect, appreciation and admiration. It’s arguably less realistic than the one in the The Giving Tree, but in my opinion, infinitely more moving and inspiring. The selflessness and sacrifice depicted in The Happy Prince is admirable, whereas the tree’s actions just don’t do the boy any favours.

Being a giving person doesn’t mean forgetting about your own happiness. Sure, giving everything she has to the boy makes the tree happy, but the story itself is faulty because it celebrates selflessness while condoning selfishness.

I prefer The Happy Prince’s brand of altruism because it comes from a different place, taking a wider view of life and the importance of thinking of the greater good instead of being focused on personal needs. The tree, as far as I can see, was just indulging a spoilt brat, the Prince and the swallow wanted to make a real difference.

Happy Easter!

Daphne Lee is a writer, editor, book reviewer and teacher. She runs a Facebook group called The Places You Will Go for lovers of all kinds of literature. Write to her at star2@thestar.com.my.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, Lifestyle, Column, books, Tots To Teens, Daphne Lee, Easter, The Giving Tree

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