I live in Chicago, and I commute to work by train (or “L” as we call it here). Each day I walk by the same houses, the same shops, the same bushes and parking lots and lamp posts. Some days I notice the details; some days I am lost in my thoughts. But there is one thing in particular that always catches me eye — one thing that never ceases to amaze me:
Not just any tree, but a large tree growing up against a fence that faces the sidewalk. A large tree that, when I began this job two years ago, was just beginning to press into the fence post.
It began as a rub, I imagine, and gradually the pressure grew. The fence, in all its black metallic glory, refused to move, but the tree refused to stop.
Little by little that tree grew despite the fence post. Little by little it began to wrap itself around the sides. Little by little the proportions shifted, until today, when I noticed that all that is left to be seen of the fence is the small knob at its very top, where the tree has yet to push fully against it.
That tree has absorbed the object standing in its way. And this immediately struck me with two metaphors (because my mind works almost exclusively in metaphors). And, at the risk of being utterly cliche and slightly gag-inducing, I’m going to share them with you. (Because what good are metaphors if they’re not used to convey thoughts?)
The first is a metaphor about struggle. (This, perhaps, being the most obvious of any metaphors every gracing literary minds.) When a person, any person, comes up against an obstacle in their life, they have two choices: they can back away, or they can move ahead. This will hold true in any scenario which you can imagine — go ahead, try.
The strongest are those who move ahead. And although the work may be slow, there is always success on the horizon. The difficulty may never go away, but you find a way to work around it. And, in the end, it becomes a part of you; it makes you stronger. The post and the tree are now irrevocable entwined, each holding the other up, now inseparable but twice as strong. If you were to stare at the tree, you would never see the progress. But when you step back and look at a distance (or over time), the accomplishment is strikingly and nearly awe-inspiringly clear.
Now, for the second metaphor. This one is about pain.
There is not a single one of us who does not experience suffering in our lives. The modes may vary, but the experience is the same. Who among us has not felt a grief so strong that we physically hurt from the force of it? Who has not had a moment in which we are sure we will never feel normal again? Those who seem not to struggle are only better at hiding it. Sadness is part of the human condition; it comes part-and-parcel with our physical being. Only those so numbed that they can feeling nothing are immune from pain, and even then, it is there — just held at a great distance, along with peace, joy, love, and all the other more preferable counterparts.
Like the tree, we cannot control the pain that enters our lives. The tree does not have the choice to go back and grow away from the fence; and neither can we retrace our steps to avoid the pain. (Isn’t linear time a bitch?)
But the tree does not allow itself to be stopped. It simply works, slowly and methodically, at moving despite the fence. Day in and day out it grows so that, eventually, it has enveloped the thing in its way and can move on unencumbered.
Our pain is not unlike this.
There is no true escape from suffering. There is only the going through it. The experiencing it. The surviving it.
Anyone who has lost a loved one will recognize this process immediately. You begin believing that you will never live again, not really. But you are a human, you have physiological functions beyond your control, and so you continue to breathe. You move. You hunger; you thirst. And as you put one foot in front of the other, fulfilling these small but demanding needs, time passes. And as time passes, the great bouncing ball of pain begins not to bounce so high. Eventually the days become more bearable, and with time (sometimes great time), you can even exist without thinking about that particular gouge to your heart.
Eventually no one will be able to see the fence post inside the tree. And eventually we all begin to live our lives without the outward evidence of our inward battle. But the fence is always there, just inside, just beyond our reach or our vision; but a part of the tree now, just the same.
In either case, the tree is a survivor. And (lucky to be a tree) it doesn’t even know it’s doing it. (This I am assuming, as I have no memory of ever having been a tree.)
But people are survivors, too. It is in all of us to move forward, to challenge, to conquer. It is what makes us humans, what makes us fallible and forgivable and lovable. It is what makes us brave and laudable and inspiring.
It is, simply, what makes us alive.