Penny has a low income and gives 10% to charity. She NEEDS to give. Her cousin Rich has a high income and gives less than 5% to charity. So Penny asked Rich to explain why he doesn’t give more. He claims he’s not a materialistic hedonist, but is he a selfish asshole?
Here is Rich’s response, in the form of a parable.
It’s called The Squirrel Story.
Once upon a time, there were 5 squirrels. They were Gray, Red, Blue, Green, and Gold.
Gray Squirrel lived in an old, diseased tree that did not produce any acorns. He had a hard life. To feed his family, he depended on acorns from other squirrels, as well as acorns stored in Central Oak. This had been going on for generations, but there was not much he could do until his tree was healed. He dreamed of moving to a new tree, but it was not so easy. He was thankful for the acorns he received. He was a good squirrel.
Red Squirrel lived in a healthy, cozy tree, even though it was low on acorns. She had a simple life. She grew 10 acorns each year and did not waste any. She gave 1 acorn every year to Gray Squirrel, and it made her heart glad. However, she too needed acorns from Central Oak to feed her family. What’s more, she owed Central Oak many acorns, and it would take her years to pay them back. Probably she would not have many acorns left for her little squirrels as they searched for their own trees, but she knew they would be fine. She was happy in her cozy tree and thankful for what she had. She hoped her tree would keep producing just enough for her to live on. She was a good squirrel.
Blue Squirrel lived in a strong tree, with exciting branches to explore. His tree shared a common root with Red Squirrel’s tree, but produced many more acorns — 100 every year — because Blue Squirrel had learned how to grow them quickly. He gave 2 acorns each year to Gray Squirrel, and it made his heart glad. He gave 20 acorns each year to Central Oak, which did not make his heart glad, but greatly helped the forest. He did not borrow acorns from Central Oak, nor did he owe. With the rest, Blue Squirrel stored some for the winter, saved some for when he was old, and gave some to his little squirrels. In his squirrel mind, he hoped this would help Gray Squirrel, Central Oak (and, thus, Red Squirrel), and his own family’s trees for generations. Besides, he enjoyed growing acorns. He was a good squirrel.
Green Squirrel also had a strong tree that produced 100 acorns every year. She enjoyed storing and giving and saving, too. But, she was tired of growing acorns, so she developed an innovative plan. She stored as many acorns as she possibly could, sometimes 25 or 30 every year! As soon as she had enough acorns to survive the rest of her squirrel life, she planned to stop growing them so quickly (it was tiring work, after all). Green Squirrel wanted to enjoy the forest, and hopefully her tree would remain strong enough to sustain her. She had seen a few other squirrels do this — in particular, an odd squirrel with a mustache — and she thought it was worth a try. She was a good squirrel.
Gold Squirrel had a freakish, oversized tree that produced 1,000 acorns every year. But, he was not happy. All day and night he thought about growing acorns. He resented Central Oak, he thought other squirrels were lazy, and he did strange things with his acorns because he had so many (like painting them gold). He did not give to Gray Squirrel, and sometimes he tricked other squirrels out of their acorns. Or he took them. He was not a good squirrel. He was a selfish asshole.
One day, Red Squirrel noticed Blue Squirrel’s tree (they kept in touch, because they shared a common root). She saw all the acorns, and wondered if he wanted to be like Gold Squirrel, the asshole. So she asked Blue Squirrel, “Are you a selfish asshole?”
Appreciating her honesty, Blue Squirrel said, “Nope. You know me! At least … I don’t think I am.”
“Well then, what are you going to do with all those acorns?” said Red Squirrel.
Blue Squirrel replied, “I’m going to store some for winter, save some for when I’m old and can’t tend my tree, and give some to my little squirrels. I want them to learn to grow acorns too.”
Scrunching her nose, Red Squirrel asked, “But what about Gray Squirrel? He needs help. His tree is diseased. I give 1 acorn for every 10, and right now you give 2 for every 50. This is not right. I am giving more when you consider how many acorns we have. Are you sure you’re not a selfish asshole?”
Blue Squirrel thought about this. He thought about all his storing and saving and giving. And he thought about Gray Squirrel. “You are right,” he said, “I should give more to Gray Squirrel. He really needs it. I’m good at planning, so I will create a plan to do this.”
“I will give another acorn to Gray Squirrel immediately, because I have plenty to give. Thank you for helping me to see this. It makes my heart glad. But I will also keep storing acorns so I won’t need to borrow any from Central Oak when winter comes. I will keep saving acorns so I won’t need to grow so many when I’m old and tired and can’t tend my tree. And I will keep giving acorns to my little squirrels to help them grow their own strong trees that will never become diseased. Then they, too, can avoid borrowing from Central Oak.”
Red Squirrel was okay with this, but not completely satisfied. “I’m glad you are giving a little more to Gray Squirrel, but your plan still seems asshole-y. All this talk about storing and saving and giving acorns is too complicated. When does it end? Why will you need so many acorns?”
Blue Squirrel pondered this. And then he realized something important. It’s not about the acorns. It’s about the trees.
“Red Squirrel, by focusing on the trees both now and in the future, there will be more acorns for everyone. If my plan works, my family’s trees will produce many, many acorns. Over time, we can continue to increase our giving to Gray Squirrel in a sustainable way. Because my tree is strong, I can use my acorns for all these plans at the same time without running out and without being an asshole.”
And then Blue Squirrel looked closely at Red Squirrel’s tree, because they shared a common root.
“Red Squirrel, we share a common root and our trees started growing in the same ground. Your root was just as healthy as mine, and you are a very smart squirrel. So why is your tree not producing more acorns? From the same root, I am now giving 3 acorns to Gray Squirrel while you are giving 1. And I am also giving to Central Oak, while you are taking from Central Oak. So you see, I am giving more to the forest by tending my tree. Have you mistreated your roots? What if your tree becomes diseased, like Gray Squirrel’s?”
Red Squirrel contemplated this. She did not like being questioned by this asshole. “No no no, we do not worry about such things. Our roots are fine and our tree is healthy. We do not need it to produce more acorns. Yes, I share a common root with you, but my tree has grown differently, and I’ve tended it differently. We are different squirrels! That’s why our trees are different. I am Red and you are Blue.”
Blue Squirrel then realized something else important. It’s not about the acorns, and it’s not just about the trees, it’s about the trees AND the squirrels.
“Red Squirrel, I can see that you are tending your tree in your own way. You have the gift of being content with your acorns (some squirrels are not) and the gift of giving to Gray Squirrel as your tree allows. Those gifts are good for the forest.”
I have different gifts. I have the gift of tending my tree to grow many acorns, which I can give to Gray Squirrel, to Central Oak, and to my little squirrels. I also have the gift of planning for winter and old age. These gifts are good for the forest. We are each playing an important role in the forest according to our trees and our squirrel gifts.”
Red Squirrel knew Blue Squirrel, and she knew his heart was in the right place. She decided he was not an asshole like Gold Squirrel. Maybe if she kept talking with him, he would stay true to his heart and increase his giving to Gray Squirrel as his tree made more and more acorns. He he was certainly good at growing acorns.
Blue Squirrel knew Red Squirrel, and he knew her heart was in the right place. She was unselfish — maybe too unselfish! He decided she was not mistreating her roots. Maybe if he kept talking with her, he could help her strengthen her tree and save more acorns for winter. She was certainly good at not wasting acorns.
Blue Squirrel also wondered about how best to help Gray Squirrel, because even more than acorns, what Gray Squirrel needed was a new, healthy tree. And certainly he could learn to use his own squirrel gifts to tend a tree. Then he could survive on his own, and teach his own little squirrels to tend trees as well. Because it’s not really about the acorns. It’s about the trees and the squirrels.
Blue Squirrel and Red Squirrel were happy for this conversation. They realized they could learn from each other. They even decided to start a squirrel blog! Soon they were also talking with Green Squirrel and Gray Squirrel to see what they could learn from them, and more and more squirrels of all colors from all types of trees joined them to talk about acorns and trees. It was good for the forest.
Except for Gold Squirrel. He did not join in because he was too busy counting acorns. What a greedy acorn-hoarding piece of $h*t!
The morals of the story:
- Don’t miss the forest for the trees; don’t miss the trees for the acorns.
- Give a squirrel an acorn and you’ll feed him for a day; teach a squirrel to tend a tree and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.
- Personal finance is personal; every squirrel is different. Most squirrels, if their hearts are in the right place, are not assholes.
- Rich is a little bit nuts.