What did the Lorax mean by Unless?
This story had a deep and lasting impact on me. I was a child when it came out. I loved it the most of all the Dr. Seuss books. But it also troubled me. It felt very different from The Cat In the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, or Oh the Places You’ll Go.
It felt like a puzzle that needed to be solved and time was running out!
I felt that the one word the Lorax leaves behind for the greedy, old Once-ler was the key to solving the puzzle! But, what does it mean? Unless…what?!!
Dr. Seuss tells us what the Once-ler thinks Unless means at the end of the story. The Once-ler thinks that unless someone like the boy cares a whole lot, the world will never change.
It seems so simple. Surely, I felt as a child, there are bunches of children just like me reading this book and understand the message and will care enough. Surely, we the kids of the 70s get it, and when we grow up, we will change the world and avoid catastrophe.
But, we didn’t. Here we all are, 52 years later, and the world has not changed course. It remains fixed on the same course that it was on back in the 70s when Seuss first published The Lorax. In fact, it feels that we are all speeding ever faster… and to what? The End?
Clearly, the Lorax means something entirely different in his silent message he leave to the selfish, self-absorbed Once-ler. Clearly, Unless means something different than what the Once-ler thinks. But what? What do we need to do as humans to avert total disaster… perhaps even the end of the world as we know it now?
Quick Recap of The Lorax
The young Once-ler arrives in the forest where the lovely Truffula Trees look like lollipops and the cute fuzzy Bar-ba-loots bears play alongside the beautiful Swomee-Swans birds and lovely humming fish!
But instead of seeing the incredible beauty all around him, the young Once-ler cuts down one of the incredible Truffula Trees and makes a Thneed!
What really?! A Thneed… this is the thing that everyone needs!
Dr. Seuss uses the Thneed as a symbol for the modern world’s obsession with fossil fuels. And Seuss is certainly right about this, gas-fuel-oil is truly something everyone needs in the world we have made.
There are lots of Once-lers in the modern world making millions and billions of dollars harvesting fossil fuels for all the things we need in our slick, fast-paced modern world!
The Lorax confronts the young Once-ler saying:
"I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. And I'm asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs" — he was very upset as he shouted and puffed — "What's that THING you've made out of my Truffula tuft?"
But the Once-ler does not hear the Lorax. Or rather he hears him but ignores him proclaiming he has a right to make money from the trees!
The Lorax rallies all the animals and tries again to make the young Once-ler listen and understand.
But there’s no stopping the happy young Once-ler. He cuts and chops and build a factory to make even more Thneeds! And then the Lorax is forced to come back and to tell him this:
'I'm the Lorax who speaks for the trees which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please. But I'm also in charge of the Brown Bar-ba-loots who played in the shade in their Bar-ba-loots suits and happily lived, eating Truffula Fruits.'
Nope, the Once-ler won’t listen. He builds an even bigger factory, and one even bigger than that one.
Images from: the lorax | By Alison on June 18, 2011 – a tree grows in brookline and a teacher blogs about it & Teaching Climate Change With The Lorax and The Jungle | By Mark Gozonsky on Getting High-School Kids to Read and Care About the Climate in Unconventional Ways — 10/21/19 — Literary Hub
Soon, the Lorax comes back with another dire message telling the Once-ler:
"Once-ler! You're making such smogulous smoke! My poor Swomee-Swans...why, they can't sing a note! No one can sing who has smog in his throat."
The Once-ler shrugs and continues chopping down the beautiful Truffula Trees and making a Thneeds.
The Lorax returns again. Now it is the Humming-Fish who can no longer hum.
This time the Once-ler gets mad and shouts:
'Now listen here, Dad! All you do is yap-yap and say, 'Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad!' Well, I have my rights sir, and I'm telling you I intend to go on doing just what I do! And, for your information, you Lorax, I'm figgering on biggering and biggering and biggering and biggering, turning MORE Truffual Trees into Thneeds which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs!'
Not long after this the Lorax does the thing that sticks in my mind and haunts me to this day. He builds a small platform underneath the Once-ler’s factory, waits for the Once-ler to look out, then without a word, the Lorax picks up the seat of his pants and flies away disappearing through the last blue hole in the polluted, ugly sky… and that is that… Unless...
So What Did the Lorax Mean?
Dr. Suess says many years after the last Truffula Tree is chopped down, the now very old Once-ler thinks the word Unless means:
But, it hasn’t worked. Hope is not enough. To fix this mess, it take action.
Are We Even Capable of Changing Our Fate?
Do we really need to destroy our planet before we care enough about it to fix it?
I know, I know, the seed the Once-ler throws down to the boy is a symbol of hope and we all need hope to Do The Right Thing. But quite honestly, do we really know what the right thing is that we should be doing?
And nature will do just fine after humans are gone. Kind of like 2067, an Australian SciFi film, where that is exactly what happens.
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ryan Kwanten Writer/Director: Seth Larney By the year 2067, Earth has been ravaged by climate change and humanity is forced to live on artificial oxygen. An illness caused by the synthetic O2 is killing the worlds’ population and the only hope for a cure comes in the form of a message from the future: “Send Ethan Whyte”. Ethan, an underground tunnel worker, is suddenly thrust into a terrifying new world full of unknown danger as he must fight to save the human race.
I think the Lorax is telling us something else. I think the Lorax is warning us about ourselves and that Unless we learn how to let go of bad ideas, we are doomed to create the world we are speeding ever faster towards making. The one that will kill us.
What Is the Lorax Warning Us About Ourselves?
I think it is Shame; toxic shame to be specific.
Shame is an emotion of civilizations. We feel shame, and it is necessary to feel it. Feeling ashamed motivates us to improve ourselves. It motivates us to take care of the people around us, so that we to treat them with kindness, dignity, and respect.
No one wants to feel shame. Of all human emotions, shame is perhaps the hardest one to endure. Because of this, it is one of the scariest, most loathed, most feared emotion in our human tool box.
If shame had a color it would be the color of pee. Listen to Snap Judgement, and you’ll understand.
Actress Diona Reasonover was on the brink of her big break. But she never expected it to happen while she was on her vacation.
Diona Reasonover is an actress who lives in LA, you can check out her writing on “I Love You America” with Sarah Silverman on Hulu.
Produced by Adizah Eghan
Note: Diona had a knee injury and could not make it to the bathroom on the plane before others beat her to it. Then, the plane begins to descend and the flight attendant not very understanding. So you’ll need to listen to how Diona solves her dilemma.
The episode before this one is worth a listen too: Date With The Devil. This one touches on the topic of how ee always hear about the people who survive a disaster and who often give credit Jesus or God for their good fortune, but we never hear about the people who made the exact same calculations, believe just as much in a higher power, but ended up dead.
I think we have become a bit lopsided in thinking about our survival as individuals and as a species when we hear only miraculous stories of good fortune, good luck, or good timing that allows a person to avert a tragedy.
But what about the people who don’t avert disaster? What about the people who get killed?
D. Parvaz touches on this in a very different story. It is a scary, tormented, horrifying, heart-wrenching story about people (through no fault of their own) do not make it. Indeed, they are murdered by monsters. That’s what humans become when they don’t digest and assimilate all of who they are as a human being. This means seeing the good in one’s self as well as the bad in one’s self. And yes, shame is one of those things.
People who refuse to feel their shame, fear, guilty, or whatever makes them uncomfortable will project them onto other people. People who don’t feel shame will do shameful things, horrendous things. They are no longer human because they have thrown half of who they are away.
So, don’t thrown your shame away! You need it. You really, really do… and the Lorax understood how desperately humans need to feel shame and other parts of themselves that make them truly capable of being human.
This article is about toxic shame.
John Amodeo (a psychotherapist for over 40 years) describes that how not dealing with our feelings of shame there are far-reaching, destructive consequences.
He says, “When shame lurks outside of our awareness, it can become the driving force behind the destructive rage, blame, and violence that is damaging our world.”
Have you ever encountered someone who is boiling with a seething rage bubbling just under their human-looking skin but really what is lurking underneath is a monster ready to explode at the drop of a pin?
Consider the shootings this past week.
- A teenage honor student who knocked on the wrong door was shot.
- Cheerleaders who accidentally opened the wrong door of a car late at night are shot.
- Teenagers who pulled into the wrong driveway and were turning around were shot, one died.
- Children playing basketball and their ball rolls into a neighbors lawn are shot at, one father lost a lung after getting shot in the back.
Amodeo describes shame as the felt sense of being defective and inadequate: “it as an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Shame has also been defined by Gerhsen Kaufman as a breaking of the interpersonal bridge. As human beings wired for connection, we dread isolation. Children fail to thrive when they don’t feel a safe and secure connection with caregivers. When healthy attachment is ruptured, a child feels unworthy of love and acceptance. This unbearable shame can lead to a mad scramble to prove our worth in distorted ways that often dehumanize others.
In a 2016 article, shame expert Bret Lyon, who leads Healing Shame trainings, describes how intolerable shame can be transferred to others:
“Driven by the need to keep the feelings of shame at bay and away from themselves, people can exult in their contempt and cynicism—finding a curious kind of gratification in it… In extreme cases, runaway contempt can cause people to lose sight of another’s humanity. Even their right to exist. This has led to extreme behavior, in Germany and many other places.”
Amodeo drives home the point of toxic shame, the very same one that I think the Lorax is trying to drive home to us with his message Unless. Amodeo writes:
When the drive toward personal “success” or being superior becomes dissociated from our humanity, we seek gratification in ways that will never really satisfy us. We become disconnected from our souls, as our innate longing for love and connection curdles into a desire for status, money, or power. These substitute ways to seek gratification often spiral out of control—taking us on a perilous journey away from our fellow humans—and away from our true selves. This desire for a narrow self-gratification overlooks the reality that we are inescapably interconnected.
We can observe this shame-driven dynamic in our fraught politics, where looking good replaces being good (truly caring about others). We can see it in political and business leaders competing to amass the greatest wealth and power, which often translates into a race to see who can be the most contemptuous and divisive.
Some political leaders—and followers who relish the thrill of belonging to a group that has special knowledge and that is superior to others—have so thoroughly dissociated from their vulnerability, their humanity, their hearts, and their souls, that they have no compunction to deny the rights of others, or, as we've seen in Ukraine and elsewhere, committing atrocities without any healthy shame to check their behavior.
The Big Choice
So… what are we going to do? Are we going to save our beautiful world full of life or are we all going to drown in a Yellow Sea of Seething Shame?
This is a job that requires every person on the planet to do. Every living individual needs to claim their shame and proclaim proudly: “I am human! I do stupid things! I learn from them! I become a better human because I use my shame to grow!”
Or, you can lock yourself inside a dilapidated husk of what used to be your humanity… deny your shame, cast it onto everyone else around you as you fake being a perfect human being.
But, your performance is nothing more than a rickety, glittery, shiny shell of who you used to be. Inside there is nothing to balance you out and make you human. You have become hollow; a garden hose flowing with seething shame disguised as rage.
On A Related Note
My college roommate from College of the Atlantic shared this story. It is closely related to the responsibility of each and every person to do the invisible work of sustaining and maintaining psychological as well as social health, which takes daily work.
Kicked out of the university lecture
Subject: Legal studies.
The professor enters the lecture hall.He looks around.
"My name is Sandra" says a voice.
The professor asks her, "Please leave my lecture hall. I don't want to see you in my lecture."
Everyone is quiet. The student is irritated, slowly packs her things and stands up.
"Faster please" she is asked.
She doesn't dare to say anything and leaves the lecture hall.
The professor keeps looking around.
The participants are scared.
"Why are there laws?" he asks the group.
All quiet. Everyone looks at the others.
"What are laws for?" he asks again.
"Social order" is heard from a row
A student says "To protect a person's personal rights."
Another says "So that you can rely on the state."
The professor is not satisfied.
"Justice" calls out a student.
The professor smiling. She has his attention.
"Thank you very much. Did I behave unfairly towards your classmate earlier?"
"Indeed I did. Why didn't anyone protest?
Why didn't any of you try to stop me?
Why didn't you want to prevent this injustice?" he asks.
"What you just learned you wouldn't have understood in 1,000 hours of lectures if you hadn't lived it. You didn't say anything just because you weren't affected yourself. This attitude speaks against you and against life. You think as long as it doesn't concern you, it's none of your business. I'm telling you, if you don't say anything today and don't bring about justice, then one day you too will experience injustice and no one will stand before you. Justice lives through us all. We have to fight for it."
“In life and at work, we often live next to each other instead of with each other. We console ourselves that the problems of others are none of our business. We go home and are glad that we were spared. But it's also about standing up for others. Every day an injustice happens in business, in sports or on the tram. Relying on someone to sort it out is not enough. It is our duty to be there for others. Speaking for others when they cannot.” -- Shared by Liza Hall -- 12/4/22
Feature Archetypal Animation
Music: How Bad Can I Be (From “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax”) — Geek Music