ONCE THERE WAS A TREE AND SHE LOVED A LITTLE BOY.
In my library, you will find children’s books alongside Science, Math and Philosophy. I keep on re-reading them because, just as did Dr Louise Joy, a Cambridge University academic, who once said: “It is a symbolic retreat from the disappointment of reality”.
‘The Giving Tree’, by American Writer Shel Silverstein, is usually the first answer you will receive when asking parents to think about a children’s book on generosity.
If you are a little rusty on this story, it is about a relationship between an apple tree and a boy. Initially, the tree and the boy are mutually dependent friends and rely on each other. However, as the years go by, the boy becomes increasingly selfish and demanding from the tree, with the tree always determined to prove its love by giving into all requests and demands of the boy. For every time the tree gave something to the boy, she felt happy. Therefore continued to give. Eventually, the tree was left with almost nothing, yet still offered her stump as a chair for the boy, who was now an old man. The boy was happy and so was the tree.
This wonderful story is considered, by some, as a metaphor for how nature keeps giving and giving to us, yet we keep taking from her, ruthlessly and mercilessly.
But here is where we got this story very wrong! It is not really about generosity, but that of self-sacrifice – which are two very different things.
Nowadays, this idea gets more of a deep meaning than ever before. We have built a one-sided relationship with nature, based on endless taking without giving back, and maybe it is now time to put an end to this. When I say “giving back”, I don’t mean literally. But, hopefully, you will receive your answer by the end of this article.
Three Apples That Changed The World
The apple is above and beyond the most famous of all the fruits and appears throughout numerous world religions and mythologies as a common symbol and motif. This is why I chose the apple as the main motif, alongside some Greek (and Norse) mythology.
In order to understand how things have evolved, allow me to take you back in time. A quick history lesson about humankind and as it all started with an apple tree, I can’t think of a better way than talking about the history of the apple.
Three apples that have changed the world:
Eaten by Eve; Fallen on Newton; Created by Steve Jobs.
The Greek mythology also presents three notable apples:
The Golden Apples in the Garden of Hesperides; Different golden apples associated with Atalanta; The golden Apple of Discord.
Each appearance of apples presents unique examples of symbolism.
Regardless of what you may think, this is not a story about the Apple; a divine fruit that is associated with creation and evolution, but a story about change.
The starting point of a change is the assumption of ‘How The World Should Be’. There is a significant difference between ‘The World As We Assume It Is’, to what ‘The World Really Is’. Change is based on an ‘Outside-In Mindset’, as opposed to innovation which is an ‘Inside-Out Thinking’. So, if you are seeking in making history, we have to take a step back to understand how the world should be, and then dive in. Let me take you through three major changes in the history of mankind before I suggest another one!
The Adam-Eve’s apple & The Garden of Hesperides:
“The forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve is one of the best-known stories in the entire world, regardless of its religious point of view. As a result of committing ‘the sin of eating an apple from the evil tree’, they were expelled from the Eden paradise by God”.
The Biblical reference states that when God made this world everything grew on its own, the food, the fruits, and each lived happily with no problems. He made a garden where the apple was known to be the ‘fruit of knowledge and evil’. He told Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, not to eat the apple that grew in the garden. However, after a trick by the devil, Eve persuaded Adam to take a bite of the apple. And soon as Adam was about to swallow the apple, it brought disaster. God then punished Adam and Eve by having them live in a world of sorrow and misery.
And like human nature, Adam fell for a girl (Oh Dear!). He snatched the apple, took the first bite and was just about to swallow when God cursed both Adam and Eve. Due to the curse, the piece of apple that Adam bit into and was just about to swallow, stuck in his throat.
Maslow Hierarchy of Needs
In 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper called ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’. In this paper, he proposed the ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’ theory, where he stated that people have five sets of needs organised in a hierarchical order.
Maslow’s model, as its name suggests, organises groups of human needs into levels in a hierarchical structure, forming a pyramid. As each level of needs is satisfied, the motivation to fulfil the next higher level is activated.
The first level is ‘Physiological’, the basic needs for functioning fulfilled by eating, drinking, breathing, going to the toilet. Second is ‘Safety and Security’. The third is ‘Belonging and Love’, (our need for love, friendship, belonging to a family, sexual intimacy and company). Fourth is ‘Social Needs’, (the need for social recognition, self-esteem, confidence as well as status and respect by others). The fifth and final stage, which Maslow labelled as ‘Self-Actualization’, is the topmost tip of the triangle. “It’s about fulfilment – doing the thing that you were put on the planet to do. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write if he is to be ultimately happy,” wrote Maslow. “What a Man can be, he must be”.
The Criticism to Maslow
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has faced criticism beginning from the fact that the theory assumes people will act completely based on their needs. Today we know that we humans don’t just act on our needs, it continues with the fact that needs aren’t always hierarchical. “There are high rates of homelessness and food insecurity among college students, but they still continue going to class and doing the best that they can”. But, the most widespread criticism of the theory is how it doesn’t apply to everyone.
Despite the criticism, Maslow hierarchy is still important and relevant, to an extent. Most of us know the feeling of dropping down in the pyramid and entering a survival mode. Yes, we still care about our job, but the health and safety of ourselves and our loved ones is far more important. Dating apps are still out there, suggesting virtual dates, remote love and deep connection – but finding love is definitely not on the top of our list.
In this pandemic, getting our hands on some essentials like toilet rolls or hand sanitizers, give us more satisfaction than getting a promotion at work, or solving a world-class problem.
Suddenly, complaining about the underground being packed, or the overload at work – sounds selfish and inappropriate. Life gets into perspective and we get the opportunity to appreciate the simple things which we took for granted. We are now back to square one to the base of the pyramid, slowly climbing up the needs hierarchy just like the apple of creation, which represents the beginning of the world as we know it, the misery and pain and our drive to survive. The first level in Maslow hierarchy suggests the basic needs as the human brain is driven by a basic instinct to survive. This need trumps all others. Maybe a Golden Apple from Hesperides’s Garden will be the cure to our pain? Well, it will make us immortal, that is for sure.
The Golden Apples in the Garden of Hesperides were a wedding gift given to Hera by Gaia, the primordial deity and mother of all life when she married Zeus. The Garden itself rested in an inaccessible spot near the edge of the world under the power of the Olympians. The Apples, as well as the rest of the life in the Garden, were tended by the Hesperides.
The Golden Apples were believed to give immortality to anyone who consumed them. Not trusting the Hesperides to guard the apple trees on their own, Hera also placed a hundred-headed dragon named ‘Ladon’ that never slept.
The Isaac Newton Apple & The Apple of Selfishness:
“Sir Isaac Newton is one of the greatest scientists in history. Despite living in a century where science was more assumptions than proofs, he managed to develop a mathematical model of the universe. Guess what helped him? “Yes, the apple, again”.
The theory of gravitation and the law of motion started when an apple fell from a tree when Newton was relaxing at his Mother’s orchard.
Although some cartoons show the apple actually falling on his head, well, this is a myth, as Newton’s theory of gravitation was built over a long period of time and study. The apple falling from the tree was just an example which Isaac Newton used to explain the theory. This apple actually changed the world, as this discovery was the base for many other innovations and realisations.
Although at the end of the 19th century, Einstein changed the Newtonian view of the universe, which many may find surprising to learn, that putting a man on the moon some half-century after Einstein, did not require any modification of Newton’s theory. NASA engineers were using Newton’s laws when they programmed their rockets at Cape Kennedy.
What Maslow Misses
Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs captivates us because it brings a sense of order to the chaos of human behaviour. But, the same things that make Maslow’s model cognitively appealing, is that this sense of order and predictability also makes it wrong. If only life were so simple.
In November 2011, ‘Pamela Rutledge’, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, pointed out in a fascinating article by ‘In Psychology Today’ entitled ‘Social Networks: What Maslow Misses’, stating that Maslow’s model misses the role of social connection.
The human brain is driven by a basic instinct to survive. This need trumps all others.
The major problem with Maslow’s hierarchy is that “None of these needs — starting with basic survival upwards, are possible without social connection and collaboration”, explains Rutledge. “Without collaboration, there is no survival. It was not possible to defeat a Woolley Mammoth, build a secure structure, or care for children while hunting, without being a team effort.” It takes a village to raise a child.
It is more true now than then. Our reliance on each other grows as societies became more complex, interconnected, and specialised. Connection is a prerequisite for survival, physically and emotionally.
In reality, Rutledge’s rewired version of ‘Psychological Needs’ suggests a more realistic set of multiple paths, through social connection, to meet our varying psychology needs. What Rutledge suggests is to change Maslow’s pyramid to ‘rewired’. Needs are not hierarchical. Life is messier than that. Like most other things in nature, needs require an interactive, dynamic system, but they are anchored in our ability to make social connections.
Newton’s Apple might have been the opening of technology and innovation, but, in the end, none of this is possible without the social connection. If we are seeking human progress, we better up our social game and collaboration, for selfishness and greed has led to chaos.
The Golden Apple makes another appearance in Greek Mythology: Atalanta was left on a mountainside to die, but was raised by a female Bear and later found by Hunters. She proved more skilled than the Hunters who trained her and she quickly became famous throughout Greece, not only as a Huntress but also for being faster than any man. Atalanta declared that she would not marry unless her intended could beat her in a foot race. Hippomenes fell in love with her and prayed to Aphrodite for help. Aphrodite gave Hippomenes three apples to help slow Atalanta down in the race, since each time he threw one, Atalanta became instantly entranced by it and had to stop running to savour it. Hippomenes won the foot race and they married and had a son. But they were turned into lions with different accounts of why this was so.
Steve Jobs Apple & The Apple of Discord:
The Third Apple is the technology company ‘Apple’ created by Steve Jobs. It is one of the most valuable and innovative companies in the world which started in the garage by two college dropouts and led to a drastic change in the world of technology. Steve Jobs was a Vegetarian and the Apple was one of his fruitarian diets. He thought of the name as something fun, spirited and not intimidating. So for the namesake, the name remained with its half-eaten logo and has become the dream brand for half of the population on this Earth. Whether it is for the perfectly crafted body or its aesthetic beauty, the craze for these designed gadgets has increased tremendously and thus ‘Apple’ has been leading the smart electronics market for some time.
Life without Toothbrush
There have been many important inventors throughout history that are recognized simply by their last name. Even if you are not quite sure what their invention was, you probably have heard of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla, Steve Jobs (hopefully you know this one by now) along with many others.
But beyond the big names, there are plenty of inventors whose creativity and ingenuity have changed the way we live, even if they never became household names. You have less likely heard of William Addis, who we all should be thankful for inventing the toothbrush, Or the next time you zip-up your dress or trousers, don’t forget Whitcomb Judson, the Chicago inventor, who wound up with 30 patents, but his most famous is the zipper. Or Albert J .Parkhouse, for the Wire Coat Hanger, the list goes on-and-on.
There might be many reasons why they didn’t get a place in the Hall of Fame, but my argument is that their invention didn’t seem important or innovative enough at that time. It might be that we do not pay attention simply because their ideas seemed so trivial, but the truth is, that they are the base of our pyramid, we simply cannot imagine our lives without them. They are so well integrated into our lives, that we don’t really know what life looks like without them. Until of course, when they are taken away from us.
When Alfred Nobel signed his last will and statement, leaving his fortune to underwrite annual prizes for intellectual achievement, he specified that one is given “to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention”, within the field of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace – the Nobel Prizes.
Though there is no clear formula for success, there are certain traits common to many Nobel laureates. Above all, the prize favours people who seek to advance human knowledge or create solutions to the world’s problems, people who create paradigm or major shifts in thinking for a field, are more likely to receive a Nobel Prize for their work.
The Nobel Prize is definite only for the icing of the cake inventions. Coat hangers and Zippers apparently are more of the cake itself. Is this what Maslow referred to by saying “Self-Actualization”?
The Ig Nobel Prize
If you are not nominated for the Nobel Prize but still after some fame, you might find this interesting. In 1991 Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of the ‘Annals of Improbable Research’, created ‘The Ig Nobel Prize’. A satiric prize awarded to ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research, its stated aim being to “honour achievements that first make people laugh and then make them think”.
To get an idea, In 2019 the prize went to Silvano Gallus, for collecting evidence that ‘Pizza might protect against illness and death if the Pizza is made and eaten in Italy.’ The 2018 prize for investigating whether it is effective for employees to use Voodoo Dolls to retaliate against abusive bosses. Further prizes for a chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg, a bra that can be quickly converted into a pair of gas masks (or face mask) or for investigating the scientific validity of the five-second rule, about whether it is safe to eat food that has been dropped on the floor. If you smiled reading this, then the prize fulfils itself.
Please don’t get me wrong, the reason I am saying this is far from taking any shred of respect from the worlds best scientists nominated or honoured with the Nobel Prize.
Yes, some of the Ig Noble Prize inventions might seem meaningless or silly, but this is only to give another perspective, of how we tend to step over the simple and basic things in life and only honour and award the latest breakthrough, glamorous inventions.
Probably the most famous of Greek mythology’s apples is the ‘Apple of Discord,’ which was a Golden Apple that indirectly started the ‘Trojan War.’
Eris – Goddess of Strife, did not receive an invitation to the wedding of Peleus and the Sea Nymph Thetis but turned up anyway with a Golden Apple labelled ‘For The Fairest’ and throws it amidst the Goddesses in attendance, this Apple was then given by Paris, Prince of Troy, to Aphrodite, who promised to give him Helen as his wife, thus triggering the events of the Trojan War.
The Apple of Discord is the ultimate symbol of vanity and it also represents the crux of a problem.
The symbolism of all of these apples tends to be along the same line. The apples are all associated somewhat with negative human tendencies. The selfishness of Hippomenes in forgetting his promise to Aphrodite for Atalanta is similar to the vanity exhibited by Hera, Athena and Aphrodite over the Apple of Discord.
The fact that all the mythological apples are golden, gives them an apparent material value, because gold is a precious metal, tying them once again to greed. They are all desirable fruits, but ones that should not be sought after – very much akin to the apples growing on ‘The Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden’.
Apples are, to some extent, heart-shaped. So a golden apple can be a heart of gold and kindness. The Greek Mythology might not have an equivalent golden apple, but I think I have one to suggest.
Kindness: The Covid-19 Apple or: The Fourth Apple
Few days ago, a friend wrote a post, which I couldn’t agree with more:
“Next year, I don’t want to hear about the Oscars Grammys, Tonys or Golden Globes. I don’t want to see a single pathetic Actor, Actress, Singer, Celebrity or Sports Person on any Red Carpet!!!
Next year, I want to see Nurses, Doctors, Ambulance Crews, Health Care Support Workers, Police, Shop Workers and Truck Drivers, all those Essential Workers, Grocery Store Workers, Volunteers, having free Red Carpet parties with awards and expensive goodie bags. If this doesn’t happen, it will be the biggest injustice ever!!
Thank you! To All of you that are working so hard to keep me safe and allow me to have food on my table”.
I am not suggesting taking away the Nobel, Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes (we do like Golden Apple, don’t we?). They have their place. But, I do think that we need to go the extra mile and give these amazing people awards, as a sign of gratitude. They are the solid base of our hierarchy of needs. They are the people who we should look up to with admiration and respect. They are the real celebrities.
Taking or Abusing?
The Giving Tree is not a story about heroic generosity. There is another important lesson to learn beneath the surface:
Self-sacrifice is not sustainable nor healthy. Research shows that people who care about others and neglect themselves are more likely to become anxious and depressed. Generosity is not about sacrificing yourself for others, it is about helping others without harming yourself. It is not about giving to takers, it is about giving in ways that nurture more givers. It is not about dropping everything any time someone needs you, it is prioritising your needs along with theirs.
The boy is completely selfish. He doesn’t just take from the tree, he does it in an ungrateful, thankless way. He should not have selfishly taken all of the tree’s apples, but more so, the tree should not have allowed him. Although the tree seems to take joy in giving to the boy, their relationship is entirely one-sided. The tree is perfectly happy to destroy herself under the guise of “love” for the boy. That is not love, it is abuse.
Imagine that the boy was not so selfish and the tree not so selfless. Imagine that the boy hadn’t so quickly and completely discarded the apples, but rather, had planted their seeds. Imagine the tree had not been reduced to a lonely stump but had been surrounded by a whole forest of other trees. Imagine a different ending where the boy, now grown, returned with his own children to visit the tree. Imagine a new generation of children swinging from the branches and resting in its shade.
Giving doesn’t have to be a sad act of sacrifice or something you have to do at your own expense. It can be a joy, something you choose to do, for the benefit of others.
These heroes we are seeing now, are risking their lives from choice, such amazing people who choose to do what they do as an act of kindness, the least we can do is to behave in decency and be respectful. We should take the kindness they teach us and move it forward, plant the seeds now, to make a brighter future when hopefully this will all be over. This is how we will create the change the world needs.
And if you ask me, this might just be the fourth Apple.
“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 AM SORRY….”
“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 ON, COME, BOY, SIT DOWN. SIT DOWN AND REST”.
AND THE BOY DID. AND THE TREE WAS HAPPY.
Let this pandemic be the Fourth (Golden) Apple that changed the world.