When We Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

What is it that keeps us from seeing other perspectives? We are generally caring people, thoughtful friends. Do we demand everyone we care about agree with everything we think or do? Do we stop caring about those who disagree with us? Should we all always agree? There is ultimate Truth, of course, which applies to every person in the same way — but does that overarching Truth dictate that every action should be the same in every circumstance? I don’t believe so. 

How can we, who live in this forest full of ‘trees’ of different circumstance, different viewpoints, different understanding, different knowledge — how can we begin to see past the lone tree of our singular lives and situations, and care about the whole forest — which includes the other individual trees in it, and the people who live among them? We seem to have come to a point in our culture where we each choose our tree, or perhaps the small thicket of trees immediately in our vicinity, and we vilify all those who say there are other, different areas of the forest that are just as important, just as ‘right’ as ours in their own circumstance. 

My thicket may be a bit overgrown, with little water, but at least we have plentiful food to find. And why can’t everyone else see that if they’d just do what we say — we who live right here in this thicket — all the bad things would get under control and everything would be better! We just need to change the course of that far-off stream so we’d have more water, and get rid of this extra undergrowth that’s holding us back — if everyone would just change the course of a stream and clear out their underbrush, then life would be good for everyone!! 

But there’s a flood on the other side of the forest, where they’re being swept away. They don’t have a far-off stream, they have a raging river. They have no undergrowth at all. And THEY keep thinking that if everyone else in the forest would just build a dam like they’re trying to do, then everything would be okay for everyone…

Up north there’s a lovely clearing, and a charming little creek that flows right through it, and groves of fruit trees and acres of berry bushes and great hunting. And all the residents of that area can’t figure out what all those other folks are complaining about all the time. All anyone has to do is put forth a little effort — just don’t be lazy, and life will be great! Everyone else must just be lazy. Or incomptetent. Or squandering what they have. Wasteful. Or maybe they’re corrupt! And why should we worry about (let alone help) people like that? That’s just offensive. THEY’RE offensive! 

On the other side of that far hill, though, a fire is starting to spread. The locals are fighting it, trying to stop it, trying to keep it at bay, trying to salvage what they can. They don’t understand why anyone would be worried about a flood when they’re fighting a fire. For them, at this moment, a flood would be helpful! What is wrong with people?? Come on, people, just fight the fire and we’ll all be okay!

But nobody else sees the fire. They’re not looking over there. They’re focused on their tree…there’s not even any smoke at their tree. They may hear rumors of the fire, but come on. There’s no fire here! Obviously! The problem is the lack of water! Or, the problem is the flood! Or even, there is no problem here! 

SO. As we back up and look at the big picture… Are the firefighters wrong to think the fire should be top priority? Are the flood victims? What about those who aren’t dealing with anything overwhelmingly terrible right now? Are they wrong about the (perhaps milder) issues they ARE dealing with? Is it wrong to say that hard work is important? No. None of them are wrong. But maybe they’re all nearsighted.

What if each of those people could see the whole forest, instead of just their one tree, their little thicket? Could we work together? Could we maybe direct the flood to put out the fire? Could we use the brush to help build the dam?

This is not a perfect analogy, of course. And it’s not meant to just apply to Covid-19 — it applies to all kinds of things. Politics. Healthcare. Education. We don’t have to pick one tree in these forests. Those other trees — the ones that seem so unreasonable, so wrong — maybe there IS a reason for them. It might be a different circumstance from ours, a different area of the forest — but one that’s no less real than ours.

There are some things that are either true or false. There is some black and white. Two plus two is always four. But sometimes ‘the perfect date’ is dinner and a stroll along the beach, and sometimes ‘the perfect date’ is April 25th, because all you need is a light jacket. Can both be true? Sure. Are they both true for everyone? Are they both always true? What if you prefer brunch and a movie? What if you’re up north and April 25th is snowy?  [And if you’re lost with that analogy, take a couple hours and watch Miss Congeniality. Maybe do that even if you’re not lost. It’s fun.] 

It takes effort to see from another perspective. To listen, to research, to really try to understand a situation other than our own. To look past our tree and see whether someone else is right, too, legitimately right at another tree in an entirely different area of this forest — or maybe they’re in a flood, or running from a fire. It takes energy to suspend our distrust and sift through the spin, to look past the angles and the sales pitches and get to the root of the matter (and we can be sure that EVERY SIDE of EVERY ISSUE has spin and angles and sales pitches. Yes, even our side. Yes, even if we really are right). It takes strength to lay aside our pride, to allow for the possibility that someone with a different perspective might be, like us, sincere, and intelligent, and logical, and caring, and (dare I say it?) maybe even not wrong.

It’s not easy to bear the cost of losing our simple cut-and-dried answers and admitting we’re not always right, that we don’t know everything, that there’s a chance we missed something or failed to understand something. That we might have something to learn from those with a different viewpoint. But it’s worth it. Because when we can do that, we can actually, truly work together. Actually, truly connect. Actually, truly understand and be understood. And maybe find some of the harder, more complicated answers. Together.

Because, really, in general, we’re pretty great, don’t you know? People. We’ve been made in the image of God! Given all kinds of intellect and abilities and knowledge and beauty and capacity for love and helping. So just imagine what we can accomplish when we are TOGETHER in this forest, working for everyone’s good, seeing what’s right for each situation, instead of fighting against each other! 

Please note: I get that there ARE some corrupt people out there. I get that politics is pretty much all corrupt. I get that this does not address everything we are dealing with. It’s not about politicians or government. This is just about US. Me and you. It’s about friends and acquaintances and facebook posts and accusations of other people groups, about picking labels and choosing sides and making assumptions and ‘Of course I’m right’ and ‘Of course they’re wrong,’ about how we talk more than we listen and we roll our eyes at everyone who thinks differently and we don’t want to take the time and energy to see the rest of the forest that we all live in. Because I know we can do better.

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