Like a Tree
a metaphor for life
Keith was my USMC roommate in Spain. He died today. His wife posted news of his passing on FaceBook. My mind took a journey back to a time and a place that is so different from today. Again I wonder. What really matters in life?
Love is what matters in life. We all know this, but we struggle to understand why and how life is that way. I still struggle to understand. I have not solved the mysteries of life but I have found a way forward while still being awed by it all. This is written to share what I understand so far.
Like all of us, when my life is done I want to leave an impact behind. The impact that matters is love produced in a variety of ways. An image that helps is of a fruit tree planted by a stream. The fruit is produced by the tree that draws up life from the stream. The cycle produces what matters. Understanding that cycle can help one to be more productive than they might otherwise be.
The seed from fruit gives life to a tree that produces fruit. The cycle for a specific tree is endlessly connected with the history of other trees. For an individual tree productivity begins and ends with the fruit. In between we follow the water up through the roots out to the branches. Each of these components will serve as a metaphor for being aware of what happens in our lives. We drink up values from a stream of ideas. Our roots give us strength to lift up a personal identity. The branches are the working out of our values from ideas in our words and actions. All of these work together to produce whatever impact we have in life. The fruit we want to produce is substantive love. Not possibilities of love, but actual manifestations of love in the real world.
This flow is universal. Ideas carry values. Values are drawn up into our identities. Our identity extends our values outwardly. The fruit of this cycle manifests on the extremities of our branched out lives.
What I share in the book is transferable to anyone. The process is universal. But I will develop these ideas with specific examples of what it looks like in real life. I will naturally use my own cycles of ideas to values to identity to actions to results as an example. This is mainly due to the fact that I am not as familiar with how this process works in anyone else as much as I my own experiences.
How can this help you? I mainly want to invite you to consider the metaphor as a useful tool for you to consider your own life. I care about my own ideas, values, identities, actions, and results. That is to be expected. But I also care about Keith’s, though his are different than mine. And I care about yours, and about those we each influence. If my specific examples are helpful I will be glad. If only the metaphor is shared I will still be grateful.
My Life’s Four Phases So Far
1. As a child I believed life was good. I valued fun. I identified with my family and I expressed my values by being clownish for my family and friends.
2. As a teen from a divorced family I believed that life was cruel. I valued cynicism. I identified with rebels and expressed my values through destructive words and deeds.
3. As a young man I believe life was from God. I identified with evangelical Christians and express my values through preaching and missionary work.
4. As a middle aged man I believe life is overwhelmingly mysterious. I identify with Jesus at a deeper level than I ever have and express my values through asking questions, caring for others, and expressing gratitude as best I can.
My Message in this Book
Ideas include facts, experiences, imagination, and possibilities.
Values are what we extract from our ideas.
Identity is what we claim our values are and how we root ourselves in those values.
Actions are how we express our values informed identity in our choices of words and deeds.
Fruit is what is produced from our actions in relationship with others.
I use a diagram of a tree planted by a stream to represent all of these. I get this idea from Psalm 1. The cynical person is reactive. The wise and blessed person is the one who intentionally draws from a good source of ideas which carry values, like a stream. The trunk of a tree represents the identity we hold up while the roots are the internal connection to our claimed identity and the complex system of internal connections to ideas that carry values. The branches are one’s values extended intentionally to maximize productivity, the fruit of our lives, impact with others.
Stream: Ideas carrying values. This is our vision of meaning.
Rooted trunk: Identity we claim and the supports for that identity. This is our stated intention about who we are and what we believe matters.
Branches: The outworking of our values. These are the means by which our values are expressed in life.
Fruit: The results produced through this overall process, season after season.
How is this universal?
Everyone is learning through experiences, whether intentionally or not. These ideas carry values. The type of identity we have, our DNA, extracts values available from a stream of idea according to what our identity is. This DNA and value selection shapes how we branch out in life. It also affects the fruit we produce from our lives.
How is being aware of this helpful?
Unlike a tree, humanity has the ability to reject certain values for others. Our DNA can be changed to some degree. How this works if debatable, of course. How much can we intentionally change what we believe is valuable? Or does that only happen from external influences? At some level this is moot. We all function as if we can become aware of our thinking, the process of extracting values from ideas. I am operating on the assumption that such a possibility of rethinking is real and meaningful. If it is not, it is a hardly worth arguing about.
If we increase our awareness of how our values, identity, and actions, work together we have an opportunity to change. We can either change what we value, or if we choose not to, we can change how we live to be better at producing the fruit of our values through our lives. That seems to be universally positive.
What do I personally value?
As I mentioned in my micro-biography my beliefs and values and identities have changed over time. As I write this I am explicitly identified as someone who trust in Jesus as the key to understanding my life’s origin, meaning, direction, and purpose. I will develop how I perceive the tree cycle to be working in my life as a Christian.
This may be helpful to other Christians who have been looking for a framework to express what they believe, including their openness to learn things they do not know. I believe it is also helpful to people who are not Christians. Both in an opportunity to understand one Christian framework which may give some insight into other Christians you know, or as a constructive exercise in differentiating your own values which are distinct.
My hope is that we will all grow in self awareness and in the ability to constructively talk with one another about how we see life. I am grateful for Keith and the conversations we shared. I am hopeful for more conversations with those of us who are still trying to make the most of the days given to us.