What is the caterpillar thinking when it undergoes metamorphosis? Does it know it will very soon shed its fleshy body and emerge as a gem of the natural world? Perhaps not, seeing that every step of the transformation is gradual. But when a caterpillar breaks forth from the cocoon and spreads her wings, she will realise that she is no longer the same person she was. And the new wings will bring her to places she has never gone before.

A few days ago, I chanced upon the story of The Giving Tree again. If you are unfamiliar with the story, here is the gist of it 

Growing up, I have been told the story multiple times and I always took it to symbolise the unconditional love of a parent. And it is not hard to see why. The tree was a constant presence in the boy’s life and even when he was an old shrunken man, he was still addressed as Boy. The tree devoted her life to caring for the boy and whatever he wanted, she gave. All she wanted in return was for him to come home to her.

But at this time in life, I also saw problems with how the tree related to the boy. Instead of seeing a mother in the tree, I saw a desperate woman who was overly reliant on a man to give meaning to her life. Her giving no longer looked selfless to me, but desperate. In making the boy’s wishes her commands, the tree lost her sense of self. Her identity was tied up in what she can do for the boy and when she had nothing left to give, she no longer knew how to relate to the boy. This seemed extremely unhealthy to me.

“I am sorry, Boy, but I have nothing left to give you, my apples are gone."

“My branches are gone; you cannot swing on them."

“My trunk is gone; you cannot climb."

“I am sorry; I wish that I could give you something… But I have nothing left. I am just an old stump. I am sorry…”

And in the end, when the boy decided that he was willing to sit on the old stump one last time, the tree became happy. Never mind that her boy took advantage of her again and again, leaving her broken hearted and lonely every single time. 

The same actions that I once celebrated, the same actions that once brought me to tears, were incomprehensible to me now. I wonder, is this the kind of storybook that you should read to little kids? A story about always taking and never giving anything in return? A story about having no boundaries and allowing people to walk all over you in the name of love? Is this the kind of message that we want to send to young impressionable souls?

That is when I realised, I have grown up. And the lens I saw the world through have changed. The story is still the same, but now I imbue the story with a different meaning, compared to 10 years ago, when I was still a young impressionable soul. Perhaps 10 years down the road, I will end up with another reading of the story, and my interpretation will be just as valid. Simply because there is no black and white when it comes to literature; everything exists in shades of grey.

In the words of Shel Silverstein, the story is a simple one – it is just a relationship between two people: a giver and a taker. Exactly who the giver and taker represent, that is up to your interpretation. An interpretation that is based on your own experiences. An interpretation that reflects who you have become in the process of growing up. And sometimes, the reflection staring back at you may seem almost unrecognisable; vastly different compared to what you remember.

That is when you know the caterpillar is no longer a caterpillar. But does it regret becoming a butterfly? No one, except the butterfly, knows.