Personal Growth: An Age of Self-Planting Trees

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on this blog, but since it’s summer now I think the time is ripe for a fresh start.  Something else ripe for a fresh start: my cilantro, basil, and spearmint (not to mention cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and summer squash). Yes, like many of you, my wife and I have started vegetable and herb gardens, and I am so excited to see some of those seeds turn into seedlings, and tiny sprouts turn into fruit bearing plants.

As I sauntered up the hill to water my garden this evening, as I bent down to examine the first yellow blossom on our cherry tomato plant, and as I spritzed the garden with that life-juice we call water, I couldn’t get this image out of my head:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

(Psalm 1:1-3)

The psalms in the Bible are ancient but deeply relevant poetry–lyrics designed to plumb the deepest depths of the human experience. The poet asks the reader to see herself, imagine herself, as this fruitful tree by streams of water. This tree that was planted, has grown, is productive, and means something to the world around it…this is the tree we are supposed to imagine being.

There’s no doubt in my mind that most of us, at some time or another, have a hard time thinking of ourselves in these terms. We can’t imagine feeling purposeful, bearing fruit, and experiencing growth in the daily death that others–for some reason–call life. We feel more like the wind-swept chaff than the sturdy oak.

Others of us (or maybe the same people at different times) have absolutely no problem identifying with the fruitfulness, sturdiness, and beauty of that tree. We know we have grown, and to be honest we’re a little too proud of ourselves for it. You see, we like the metaphor but only to a point. We would prefer to think of ourselves as trees that plant, water, and weed in our own soil. Our fruit is our own fault and our produce is our property.

I wonder if both of these responses to this poem, our dejected despair and ugly pride, are both symptoms of the same illness.

In an age when “personal growth” is our highest ambition, where self-help books are downloaded by the millions on Kindle, and where the American Dream includes pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, it’s no wonder that despair and pride are our most common responses to the tree planted by streams of water. If my growth is purely personal, if it is primarily the work of my own hands, then failing to grow leads me into despair. Failing to find my own meaning for myself leads me into self-helplessness. After all, my withering is all my fault, and there is nobody out there to water and weed but me. On the other hand, if life is good, if I am successful, and if I am convinced that my personal growth is primarily my personal doing…well then not much is keeping me from brushing the dirt off my shoulder (and, not to mention, from looking down my nose at all those weak little saplings).

But to do this is to forget some of the deep wisdom of the poet.

Like all poets, he chooses his words carefully. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he chose the image of a tree to talk about growth instead of, say, an athlete. A tree doesn’t plant itself. It doesn’t water itself. It doesn’t tend, prune, and harvest itself.

I have to admit that when I garden, I can get a bit obsessed. Our herbs are plotted plants that sit at our slider, and I am a little bit embarrassed to say that when I am sitting and watching Law & Order I glance over to those pots about once every 30 seconds. Maybe I’ll catch the first sign of life! Maybe I’ll see a little green in the sea of brown! Maybe it’s unlikely that it’s going to happen in 30 seconds, but for some reason I just can’t help myself.

As I think about a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither, the image draws me into thinking about the planter and tender of that tree. I imagine the person who chooses the perfect spot for that tree so that it will get all the sustenance it needs. I can’t help but think of the person who watches for it’s first signs of life, beside himself with excitement when the green pops out of the brown. I can’t help but think of the one who tends the tree, carefully weeding, pruning, fertilizing, keeping away pests, ensuring that it bears fruit and doesn’t wither.

Putting yourself into the poem, understanding yourself as the tree, gives you humility when you bear fruit. Sure…you bore fruit. But could you have done it without the planter? On the other hand, when you have messed up your life or somebody else has messed it up beyond your ability to repair–when you can’t possibly imagine causing yourself to grow–understanding yourself as the tree reminds you to throw your battered and brittle branches back to the one who planted you.

After all, the Planter is the one who makes us grow.

2 Responses to Personal Growth: An Age of Self-Planting Trees

  1. Kathleen says:

    Great post Kyle!

  2. Pingback: Seeds of Suffering | Freedom of the Heart

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