Justice and the Giving Tree

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Justice and the Giving Tree

For Christmas I gave my younger brothers a copy of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. I read it to them Christmas morning and they were engaged and enjoyed themselves but did not understand it.

I wonder if I understand it.

If you have read The Giving Tree, please allow your eyes to wander to the next paragraph. The book follows the relationship between a young boy and a tree. As the boy grows older he wants more, and the tree sacrifices its apples, branches, and trunk for him. Only when he is an old man does the boy rejoin the tree, and the tree is happy.

I say that I am unsure if I fully understand the story because as a younger man I was certain that the tree had done the right thing. The tree gave everything for the boy and there was something beautiful about that. But as I have grown older and encountered more of the practical side of life, I am less inclined to see the tree’s actions as healthy. I choose the wordhealthy because the tree is certainly heroic, or admirable, but its choice to pay no attention to its own needs borders on masochistic.

The word that comes to mind is justice.

In our ASC year, we are serving social justice. We read a short essay in ASC boot camp that gave us this definition: Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them. With this understanding, the relationship between the tree and the boy is certainly unjust. The boy takes from the tree without giving in return.

In my year of service, there have been times when I have not wanted to do what was asked of me. I have not always acted like the giving tree, and I did not like these moments. They made me feel selfish. And also confused, because I could not tell: Was I being selfish? Or was the request that had been made of me unjust?

The definition of justice above is a biblical definition. The definition from modern philosophy that I most appreciate comes from John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Rawls believes that to create a just society we should imagine ourselves behind a “veil of ignorance.” While behind this veil, we do not know if we will be in a position of power and status or a position of subjugation and poverty when we reenter society. Rawls believes that from behind this veil all of us would create a system of justice that protects the impoverished and disempowered.

The most important point that I draw from Rawls is that inequalities can be just, so long as they benefit the least advantaged members of society.  Our students are all disadvantaged. They are impoverished (Loyola, Arrupe), or they have limited freedom and ability due to their youth (all schools). When I give an amount that seems disproportionate for their sake, I am not a doormat. Rather my service demonstrates justice because my time, the time of someone with high advantage, is given to students with low advantage. Perhaps the giving tree has it right after all.

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