The Bristlecone Pine
There is something to be said about an organism that grows in adverse conditions. In poor soils, high elevation, extreme winds, and cold temperatures, bristlecone pine trees manage to exist. But more than just exist, they thrive. The tree hardly grows uniformly, exhibited in its twisted and convoluted shape. Different parts grow and others die. Regardless, the organism is alive.
Adverse conditions manifest themselves in countless ways: sickness, political turmoil, violence, heartbreak, death, financial loss, etc. For the past year, some of my poor soils, high elevation, extreme winds, and cold temperatures have been complications from injury. I attribute the demise of one of my most meaningful relationships to my knee. But I also have gained invaluable friendships due to a shared enthusiasm for porch couch lounging and sunset watching. My grades are subpar, but I am reevaluating my academic and professional dreams. It may easily be another year before I have functional range of motion, but I am climbing again. I won’t be taking a NOLS course, but I am moving to Washington D.C. Before, I had overemphasized pragmatism and logic in decision making. Now, there is a greater focus on appealing to emotions and developing empathy. Before, I had loved gin. Now, I still love gin. Overall, the abrupt change in my lifestyle has led to the gradual evolution and strengthening of various aspects of my character.
Call this a pessimistic interpretation of optimism. But sometimes optimism is overrated. It is based off manipulating the truth of situations to expect an irrational or unanticipated outcome. Optimism comes from thinking we know more than we do. It comes from assuming that we can predict a situation based on our linear interpretations. But this way of thinking can hinder us. It places expectations on what things should and shouldn’t be at some future time point. But positivity unveils purpose. Positivity gives reason to pursue interests, relationships, thoughts, and actions regardless of how inconvenient, painful, or daunting it may be. Positivity is interpreting the hand that is dealt in a hopeful light. Many people, including myself, had shown optimism about my injury. I would be normal within the year. But a year has passed, and I am not.
The bristlecone pine tree is not optimistic. For several thousands of years, it lives in extreme conditions. But there is a positive spin. It gets to exist in some of the most beautiful and wild places. It transcends human volatility and indecision in one lifetime because regardless of whatever human conflicts emerge, the bristlecone pine will outlive the composition, climax, resolution, and conclusion of the story.
Like the bristlecone pine, I feel twisted and convoluted. Different parts of my being are temporarily strained or bear unequal weight. But I find myself thriving because this nonlinear and sometimes backward growth has taught me to find the silver lining. And sure, I may have seen Jenny Lewis perform “Silver Lining” recently, and the catchy beat sticks with you but with all cliche songs come timeless truths. Good will always exist. Good will always exist, sometimes on the periphery. Good will always exist, and we have to find and elevate it. So, in terms of my injury, I am looking for the good. I am learning to recover holistically. Learning how to return to the activities that I love that put me in the places that I love more. It took me a year to realize and commit to doing that.
In Dance Don’t Drive: Resilient Thinking in Turbulent Times, Chip Ward beautifully articulates the ability to thrive within limits, which I will further generalize to any oppressive or challenging environment. He writes, “To say that we must learn to live within limits is not to say our lives will be diminished but that they will acquire context. Context creates meaning, insight, purpose, depth, and fullness.. art does not enlarge itself by limitless expression but, rather, is enriched within boundaries.”
So, given the environment that I exist in, given the environment that humanity exists in, it is our duty to thrive in seemingly suffocating situations to be better individuals. To be dynamic and flexible despite the expected and unexpected obstacles. To focus on the expansion of different components of our being. To be patient. Because if we don’t, if we stop adapting, if we stop finding the good, who will? Who will be the bristlecone pine?