Seeing the Forest in the Tree

An allegory

Clay Rivers
Oct 16, 2017 · 7 min read

His name appeared in my Facebook Chat list just as it had for the past seven days. Whenever I logged on he was there, morning, noon, night, or pre-dawn. Same position in my Contacts listing, third from the top. Was he leaving his phone’s Facebook app open all the time or was something going on in his life? I was preoccupied other projects and felt no need or had the time to reach out for an online chat. I went back to work, but Joe’s name stuck out.


The chat box opened and revealed a no-nonsense opening line.

“I’m having a bit of personal struggle. I just spent the last three hrs typing four pages raw pain and memories from my childhood. Stuff I’ve never shared with anyone. I’ve written a letter to my stepfather. If you have time, I was hoping you could edit it for me,” Joe typed.

“Sure. I’ll take a look at it. When do you need it back?” I asked.

“Whenever. My wife is pregnant and I’m going to be a father. I never had a dad, so I’m winging it.”

“Congratulations! Wait—so is this letter to anyone in particular?”

“My stepfather.”

I’ve written a couple of those letters in my time. The subject matter was never rainbows and unicorns. I gave Joe a gentle heads-up about how having expectations of certain outcomes tend to be major disappointments waiting to happen. If he was going to send a letter, he needed to be aware that the chances were high the recipient might not receive the letter as intended.

Joe told me an accusatory phone call from his stepfather prompted him to write his hot-fingered letter which would clear away any misconception his stepfather might have had that life for the family after his departure was idyllic. I poked and prodded a little to get a better grasp on the situation. He admitting to writing his letter in anger, but he wanted to let go of the anger, forgive his father, and become better father to his own son than his stepfather was to him; but he didn’t know how.

Forgiveness. There’s a topic that can surely be summarized in a couple of sentences. We swapped a few messages about the nature of forgiveness. I told Joe of the high points and pitfalls I faced in finally accepting my own family’s past for what it was and forgiving my own father for his alcoholism. I agreed to edit his letter and that I’d get back in touch with him in a couple days.

Within minutes he emailed me his letter and what I read splintered my heart. I’ve known Joe for about fifteen years. He’s a rough and tumble guy with a heart as big any I’ve ever seen. After you’ve known someone for a while you kinda get a feel for them. You get glimpses of their past and you want good things, nice things to happen in their future. But the contents of his letter revealed a childhood rife with events that no one — adult nor child should endure.

Joe recounted in searing detail incidents of neglect, an occurrence of molestation that his stepfather dismissed, the domestic and emotional abuse of his mother (with requisite firearms), him witnessing his mother’s miscarriage, and thanks to no electricity—a year of cold showers and no heat in Missouri. These events were only the tip of the iceberg and transpired before Joe reached third grade.

The letter was a rage-filled screed filled with repressed memories that after three decades exploded onto the consciousness of a forty-two-year-old man still reeling from childhood wounds. I had never read anything like it before. I hurt for him.

Seeing the Forest in the Tree

Reading these his letter I couldn’t help but think back to my own childhood. My parents were the first in their respective families to attend college. In the south. In the 1950s. They were given nothing. My mother, the eldest of eight kids grew up on a farm and knew that a life of manual labor was not for her. Back then, a college education was the only way for Blacks to get ahead. She and her parents scrimped, saved, and sacrificed to get her to college. My mother alternated a semester in school with a semester working to save money for the next term. Her determination paid off, and she finished with her Masters in Education. My father longed to be a doctor, but due to financial limitations only got as far as a degree in pharmacology. But after graduation, he excelled as one of the first black area sales representatives for Anheuser-Busch.

My childhood was what I’d consider middle class. I don’t remember my siblings and I ever wanting for anything. But mind you, that was not because of government handouts. It was because my parents worked their asses off for everything they got. But my childhood was hardly the stuff of The Brady Bunch. Hell, we were a black family living in the south. One need only read history to get a glimpse of what life was like for black people in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. And the struggle continues.

The point is while this guy is white he came to the realization that he was sold a false bill of goods regarding people who weren’t white and straight. He does not see me as a stereotypic racial trope and the same can be said of me regarding him. We see one another as human beings and that point of view, transcends race; because if that were not the case there would be NO WAY ON EARTH HE COULD DIG THAT DEEP INTO HIS SOUL AND SHARE THOSE KINDS OF TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES.

To my white readers who think of privilege as the check that never arrived in the mail or think that they have not personally benefited from it, let me ask you this question—

Given the way black Americans are treated in this country, would you be a black person in America today?

If in your heart of hearts, you thought “no” for a nanosecond, you understand and therefore benefit from privilege. You see, it’s not about receiving a check in the mail. The color of your skin is the currency that affords you access to better goods and services. Whether or not you have intentionally used privilege isn’t the issue either. It all comes down to the existence of a system that recognizes and affords you advantages, while at the same time denying others those same advantages. Privilege is the flip side of the racism coin. People of color aren’t looking for a free pass by wanting to eradicate systemic racism. We’re looking to receive the same civil liberties promised in the Constitution, and to receive them without prejudice or malice.

Final Thoughts

I’ve said this here, here, and here, empathizing, sympathizing, identifying, relating to, and/or understanding the experiences of a person of another race is not an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to be black to get (empathize, sympathize, identify with, relate to, or understand) the concept of oppression. You don’t have to be Jewish to get why Nazis and swastikas cause a visceral reaction in some people of the Jewish faith. While my childhood was as far removed that of Joe’s as sweet is from salty, I and any reasonable human being can get that their experiences were traumatic.

But people this has to go both ways. People of Color can not be the only ones who are always willing to mammy, coddle, and nurture white people back to wholeness. And despite what you may think there are white people who are willing, able, and have aided People of Color in maintaining their dignity in the face of our pain. More white people need to get with the program though.

This isn’t about whose pain is greater. Pain is pain. Full stop.

We, as a nation, need to realize that we all want the same things: to be understood, to be accepted, and to be loved. The sooner we all come to the realization that America’s strength is not in its unity, but in its diversity within that unity, the stronger we’ll be against those who would divide and conquer us—both foreign and domestic.

Let me leave you with this poem by Maya Angelou.

Human Family

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

Love one another.

Clay Rivers

Writing from the intersection of race, faith, and equality. Join the conversation, but you have to bring your own espresso.

Clay Rivers

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Author, art director, actor, and optimist. I write about equality, faith, and racism. Let’s chat over espresso. Books at:

Clay Rivers

Writing from the intersection of race, faith, and equality. Join the conversation, but you have to bring your own espresso.