The Forest for the Trees

We all do it. We get caught up in what's happening THIS INSTANT and forget to take in the bigger picture. Our emotional reaction to what someone tells us totally blocks out our awareness of why they told us that. Or we apply a general comment specifically to ourselves, and then we worry about what that comment implied...

We argue with a loved-one and get so caught up in the emotions of the moment-- how unfair they are being!-- that we don't notice how tired and overwhelmed they are feeling about a big project at work and their mother's failing health. We don't know that maybe they are thinking more about what will happen financially if they lose their job, how scared they are about their mom, and not thinking at all about how much you needed one pair of jeans with no holes in it that you just spent $60 to buy. On sale. Somehow, today, $60 is a lot of money.

If you don't understand someone's emotional reaction-- ask them questions. Recognize that they may not know where their feelings are coming from either, and might even appreciate an opportunity to figure it out. If you are hurt by their tone of voice or their assumption or their lack of support, share your perspective with them. They may not realize how their words and actions affect you.

You don't have to be a mind-reader to have a pleasant conversation. Instead, learning to gently uncover the root of the emotion expressed-- and learning to express your emotional response to a situation in an honest and respectful way-- often diffuses such situations before they become deep-seated grudges, and allows for deeper and more caring communication to evolve. I've noticed that sharing your needs or feelings and having them ignored can often teach us something important about the situation, too.

Conversely, we can spend our whole life examining every aspect of a single tree. We can become an expert on that tree, and talk about it at great length... without ever realizing that it sits in the middle of a grove of similar trees, in the middle of a forest. That those trees also have a great effect on the health, longevity, and stability of the tree that we've focused on so exclusively.

Without balance-- without the healthy interaction of the whole forest ecosystem, that one tree would fall in the first high wind of the first winter that it lived. It would dry up or burn up or rot out, but for the healthy interplay between water and earth and tree and fern and other tree and bugs and... No one person, no single aspect of our lives, is truly so important that we can focus on it to the exclusion of all others-- and expect to live long health happy lives. We are each a part of our own ecosystem, and it is our responsibility to maintain its overall health so that we, in turn, can be healthy.

Being an adult is hard work. Focusing only on our failures or only on our successes keeps us from seeing the important lessons and knowledge we have available to us from our life as a whole-- the forest of our lives gets dwarfed when we stand at the base of a single tree, looking up and up it's length.

I'm reminded of a story I heard about two friends. We'll call them Amy and Bob. Amy and Bob were friends for many years. They even got into the habit of talking on the phone every day as they drove home from their respective jobs. But one day, each decided that it was the other friend's turn to call. And when the call didn't come, each decided to wait, until the other friend was not so busy, and had a chance to call. Finally, two weeks later, one friend checked in with the other, truly worried at the long silence that had developed. "Are you okay? Is anything wrong?"

By now, the other friend was offended and hurt, and just a little bit worried by the silence and what it implied. Maybe Bob didn't need Amy anymore. "What do you mean-- am I okay?! I've just got a lot of important things going on, that's all!" Amy wanted Bob to know that she didn't need him anymore, either. That he was missing out on all the cool things she brought to his life by not bothering to check in with her every day. Maybe now he'd start calling her again-- now that he knew he'd missed something important when he ignored her. (Notice that she didn't actually share her fears or her perspective with Bob.)

Bob decided that Amy must not want him to bother her, especially since she had important things going on in her life-- things she didn't want to talk to him about. It hurt, but she'd done this before. (Bob didn't check that his perception of Amy's comment was accurate, either.) So he waited another two weeks for her to have more time for their friendship again. In that two weeks, Bob enjoyed talking on the phone with some of his other friends, and had wonderful conversations with them that he could never have had with Amy. He discovered that many of his favorite interests were shared by one or another of his friends, but that it wasn't so important as he'd thought to share all of his interests with any one friend. That was good, because he'd never really been able to talk with Amy about his fly-fishing lessons anyway. She just wasn't interested.

Finally, Bob called Amy again, and found that her frustration with him seemed to have increased in the time since his last call. In the five minutes they were on the phone, he noticed that Amy did not ask him about his interests or his well-being. She let him know that she didn't approve of some of his friends, and avoided any discussion of concerns she'd shared with him the month before. By the end of their conversation, Bob was frustrated and confused. Amy was such an important person in his life. He'd spent many hours talking with her on the phone in the past ten years. Now they weren't talking at all, and he had no idea why. What would he do if Amy decided she didn't want to be in his life??

Bob needed to call someone and talk about his frustration and his concerns with this all-important friendship. Was the problem obvious to everyone but him? Could he do anything to fix it or to let her know how important their friendship was to him? As he flipped through his contact list, Bob realized how long the list had grown in the past few weeks. He noticed how many friends he now felt comfortable calling to discuss his concerns, and he realized that he had a lot of friends who would drop everything to brainstorm solutions with him if he called and asked. People who wouldn't get offended or worried if he chose NOT to call them about his situation with Amy. He thought how Amy would feel if his friends' role and Amy's were reversed.

And finally he realized that Amy was just one of many friends who made up his support system, and that for all the times past that he appreciated her support, it didn't mean he had to appreciate her behavior now. There was a whole forest of friends for him to spend his time enjoying and growing with, and Amy was one tree that seemed to have stopped growing for a time. In fact, with all the shade his tree cast as it grew taller and taller, leaning over and blocking her sun... it might help her to grow if he DID lean in some other direction for a time. Bob decided that really, it was Amy's turn to call him.

And since he was meeting some friends for dinner later that day, Bob simply turned off his phone, and enjoyed the people around him. Because really, the only person Bob could change... was Bob.

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