One of the most overused metaphors for our human experience of life is that of the journey. We have our personal journeys and family journeys, educational journeys and vocational journeys, emotional journeys and spiritual journeys. And we are told that our most significant journeys of self-discovery often come in the form of literal journeys to places of history, heritage or spiritual significance.
Many of us are taught or absorb from the culture around us to anticipate change and travel, and we experience a growing sense of restlessness if remaining in the same place—physically, geographically, experientially and even sometimes relationally and spiritually—for “too long”. Yes, there is a kind of romance to taking to the open road, perhaps in a van with the seemingly obligatory “Not all who wander are lost” sticker on the back window. It is the story of favourite road movies, the content of many popular social media accounts and the daydreams of many of us during long afternoons in the office, classroom or workshop. But this is not only a recurring narrative in the stories of our classical and popular culture, it is also a much vaunted attitude to living, focused on enjoying the moment, following your heart and chasing your dreams.
Like many cliches, “life is a journey” has some founding truth, even if weakened by repetition and sometimes stretched beyond usefulness. There is much to appreciate and affirm in practising an open-minded, adventurous and authentic approach to life. But many of the apparent charms of this scenario can also be its traps: freedom can become disconnectedness; rejecting expectations can also be rejecting responsibilities; doing only what feels right can become self-indulgence; refusing to make a plan can also mean living without purpose; wandering can also become aimlessness. To mirror J R R Tolkien’s famous line, “Not all who wander aren’t lost”—or, to put it more expansively, many wander because they are lost and some get lost in the wandering.
On the other hand, the attitudes of the stern and inflexible are rightly mocked in many of the stories of mythology and popular culture. These characters often appear strong, but because of their rigidity and inability to adapt, they are fragile, threatened by change and often their resulting insecurities poison their interactions with those around them.
Outside the caricatures of storybook characters, it is unusual to meet someone who is completely inflexible and closed off, but many of us feel the occasional temptation to settle for the merely familiar and know people who are rarely open to new ideas or experiences. Such people are lost because they never wander. They miss key aspects of what it means to be human—to discover, to learn, to wonder and to grow.
All of this suggests a more useful metaphor for our life experience. One of the ancient Hebrew prophets described people who live well—with hope and confidence—in this way: “They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit” (Jeremiah 17:8). This is a picture of a life of stability and change, growth and cycles, perseverance and productivity.
As I write this, the trees outside my office window are losing the last of their colourful autumnal leaves, leaving their bare branches to face the onset of winter with its cold rain and biting winds. They are the same trees that appear along the front fence line as saplings in photos of the building when it was opened in the late 1930s. But they are also different trees, grown large across the decades, trimmed from time to time, and also occasionally losing limbs to an extra-strong gale. As their summer greens have turned to reds and yellows and browns and the leaves have floated away in the autumn breezes, there is also the expectation that when the season warms again, the sap will rise in the tree, the green will bud and then the leaves will again unfold in the pattern of change and renewal that these trees have been dancing for more than 80 years.
Living well requires a strong foundation of meaning and purpose, and while it is not always possible, seems to work best when we have roots that grow ever deeper into place, community and conviction. But this does not mean we are unchanging.
Indeed, such rootedness provides the power and possibility of growth and change. A healthy tree is always changing, growing taller, wider, thicker, deeper. If it stops, it begins to decline and decay. The tree is also responsive to the sun and the wind, with the flexibility of its branches part of its strength in withstanding the assaults of the elements. It bends to the wind so as to still be standing strong the next morning.
There are also seasons in our lives. These are both predictable and fickle. Some summer days are pleasant, others are ferocious—but the seasons follow each other in turn. There is a “a time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance. . . . A time to search and a time to quit searching. A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear and a time to mend” (Ecclesiastes 3:4–7). In each of these times, there are things to learn and opportunities to grow, difficulties to endure and wonders to find. And after each, we will be changed.
If we push them too far, all our metaphors—perhaps particularly metaphors for how we should live—will come undone or let us down. But consider the trees . . . observe that their permanence belies their sometimes imperceptible but constant change. Envy their stability and groundedness; emulate their steady maturation, fruitfulness and hospitality. Know when our neighbours need shade and when the absence of leaves can allow the weaker winter sunshine to reach the grass below. Learn to grow both larger and deeper. And find the hidden sources of life and strength that will help us through times of drought and allow us to provide for others when they are struggling.
Let’s use this metaphor of the tree more when talking about how to live well—both planted and growing.
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Nathan Brown is a book editor for Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria.