THE WITHERED TREE
Once a withered tree was having some trouble looking on the brighter side of life. What brighter side, the tree wanted to know, when every day it was reminded that its own life might not have one? Might never have one, instead remaining stunted, gnarled, and perpetually turned to the north. Why hadn’t it reached its full potential, as trees all around it looked to have? At times one might almost think the forest wasn’t to be seen apart from their imposing forms and competing claims to be at the center of it. Each massive cedar or fir strained not simply to tower above all others but to spread its wonders and cast any rivals in its shade as well. Though to the withered tree, they all looked pretty much alike, differing little beyond height and breadth and a slight variation here or there on a common understanding of “life potential.” In fact, they seemed to take most pride in being recognized as an enviably successful illustration of ambitions universally shared. Particularly if a claim could also be made to having overcome daunting obstacles at some point on the way to one’s exemplary triumph far above. While a scar or two suffered in the process, a lightning strike or some such, was interpreted as testimony to one’s resilience and dedication that could give a boost to even middling attainment in the never-ending quest to be taken seriously as a tree among trees. But what if you were nothing but scars? A gash to your very core ceased to be worth calling attention to when that core was covered with them, or a twisted limb when not a single one wasn’t. How do you make a virtue out of continual blows? Or out of “the good fight” when struggle was too constant to allow for degrees of victory or defeat? When “the good fight” had become the cliché of last resort, so worn that all distinguishing grain had faded from it? What had gone wrong those many years ago, the tree wondered? When had its withering begun? And why? That some trees just flourished and others did not hardly counted as an answer, so obvious its truth rendered it meaningless. The when seemed more important to understand. Were limits already there in the seed, possibilities closed off before any summons to them arose? Had the soil from which to draw the strength and flexibility needed to grow been exhausted, or had that soil proved too rich with promises to nourish any one of them to fullness? And what of the seedling, now so far in the past, that had strained towards every dawn with its own bright determination? What had happened, then? With little chance of further growth now, what you had become you were doomed to remain, it seemed. This limb would never straighten to what it might have been nor that dead one ever revive, and each autumn took a little more out of you. Until the gathering chill drove you back into whatever inner strength remained and kept you from collapsing altogether. There a stubborn will alone, turning and turning on itself, kept alive the promise of another spring on no more than the vision of buds in pale sunlight. Kept that hoped-for return alive, one day to the next, only by force of imagination since the facts of the case were undeniable: the unfolding of potential slowed--slowed to a near halt--but it never turned round to draw anew from what had once been and gone. All the boldness of youth and the long calculations of maturity fell short of what was needed now, even more so for what lay ahead, each year tightening upon the last like a curse that had been a lifetime in finding voice. Simple endurance brought its own wounds now, deeper and slower to heal. Beneath the riven bark they spread their shadowy net that nothing could escape. That nothing should escape, the withered tree began to think. What a fool’s comfort it was to believe you could outlive your scars and declare yourself healed of all pain, that you had earned the right to boast to the world that nothing could cleave you to the heart anymore. While to moan in the wind that life still owed you some encouragement, owed you anything other than itself, was the waste of a good strengthening wind indeed. Would it be better to remain a withered tree to the end in that case, without comfort but without illusions either? Could there be merit in a quiet resolve that equaled mighty strainings for the clouds? Just as there could be a kind of peace in seeing one’s own struggle for what it was? No grand display of powers once dreamed of but never found. No “inspiring victory against overwhelming odds” or “eternal symbol of the indomitable spirit shining through.” How many of those were loudly lauded for a season and then forgotten? Instead, a sober, darker faith kept with what lay secret, much closer to the pith. An allegiance to all that has made you what you are--not despite the setbacks and pain but precisely and unreservedly because of them. An embrace like this of the withering that had overtaken it would require a strength the tree wasn’t sure it had. And yet what else should have been its confidence all along? What had happened to it was not the injury of a moment in its life, early or late, but a truth that should sustain it always and one that would abide when this dense stand of forest had vanished to the last tree and the soil rooting them all had blown away to bare rock. The truth that came not from outer measure and grace but from a lifetime of knotted beauties within. Something else entirely.
Copyright © 2009 by Geoffrey Grosshans