You Can Find Your Way to the Light

Every year, I write an “autumn” blog post—an ode to dwindling light and the taste of pumpkin and the metallic odor of my kids’ hair after they’ve been outside playing in the chill air and colorful canopies and falling foliage. But this year, I haven’t been as infatuated with the many trees. This year, I’ve been captivated by a single tree…

resilience

Photo Credit: ceasol via Compfight cc

We moved this year and, in our new backyard, is a forest of oaks. They’re centuries old, tower above our house, and their gnarled limbs interlock and dominate all other vegetation on the forest floor below.

Except.

Not far from our back deck, nestled amongst the oaks, is this little-engine-that-could. This little-tree-that-could. Less than a decade old, its trunk is only inches in diameter. It gets almost no light and it has no room to grow. So, it’s doing the only thing it can:

It’s shooting straight up through the oak trees.

And it’s gaining on them fast. It’s called a tulip tree—one of the few trees that can survive in a grove of oaks or maples. It will eventually push through the treetops and tower over them. Around that time, its canopy will bloom with flowers.

I meditate upon that tree, and it reminds me of the people in my life.

It reminds me of my wife who decided, when she was a thirteen year-old girl, home was not the best place for her to be anymore. So, all by her young-clueless self, she applied to boarding school. She applied for financial aid, too. And she got in and she went and then this little one who’d never done anything athletic was forced to choose a sport, so she chose cross-country. And when the forest paths couldn’t stop her, this tiny young lady decided she was going to pull an oar and join the crew team and she pulled until she puked if that’s what it took. And by the time I met her she’d pushed her way through all of the towering odds, and she was a graduate student at Penn State University. And when she told me her story, I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.

Because I think it’s a good idea to surround yourself with people who will find a way to survive when the Zombie apocalypse hits.

And the little-tree-that-could reminds me of my younger son, who recently took a ball like a rocket to the gut during a soccer game. He crumpled and he had a moment to choose between the big oaks or the sky. For a moment, it looked like he’d fall over. But then he put his foot on the ball and while everyone was still standing around wondering if he’d throw up his lunch, he sprinted with the ball up field, through several dazed defenders and danced it right into the net. It reminds me of him turning around with his hands in the air.

Like limbs that refuse to quit reaching for the sky.

The little-tree-that-could reminds me of my older son, on his first day of middle school. In a new town. With no friends. It reminds me of him waking up with a glint in his eye. Scared, yes. Uncertain, yes. But, somehow, savoring the challenge. It reminds me of the moment he hopped out of the car and into a crowd of strange kids. In the Stephen King Dark Tower series, a gunslinger is someone who shoots true when the pressure is on—someone who finds something steely at the center of them and then draws upon it when the big oaks tower all around. On that morning, my son was a gunslinger.

Like a tree that just won’t stop growing into what it is here to be.

It reminds me of my daughter, who can find her way to joy in almost any situation. Regularly, she sits at the dinner table and fake laughs until it turns into a real laugh, because she trusts there is always a real laugh waiting to be found. Her giggles eventually morph into happy tears, and she invites all of us other tall, solemn trees into the light with her.

She pushes us all upward.

It reminds me of every client who sits on my therapy couch. They come in, surrounded by these big oak trees of pain, and they insist on growing through the suffering, until one day, they finally push through the canopy and taste the light.

It reminds me of the many silent heroes in my new hometown. Amongst the great oaks of this world, they get absolutely no publicity. Instead, every day, they do their work, they raise families the best they can, and with whatever time they have left over, they turn to the forest around them and try to raise the rest of the world up a little bit, too.

It reminds me:

Every single one of us can grow and push through all the towering, overwhelming parts of life and existence that surround us all the time, every day, and year after year. In the words of e.e. Cummings, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

We can get taller, one inch at a time.

Trusting the light is always waiting for us.

In the big sky above.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Ashley Hall

    I love this post! This is totally where I am in life right now. It can be scary, but so far it has felt like freedom.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Ashley, and I’m so glad to hear the spirit of freedom in it resonates with where you’re at right now!

  • Salome (Switzerland)

    Congratulations! The tree analogy totally nails it! Let’s persue the light focusing on where we need to go not why it might not work.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Salome. Wasn’t sure if it was just my own personal affinity for trees, so I’m glad it generalizes!

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Beautiful.
    Growth is a choice that can be scary and painful, but no more so than the realization we’ve been quietly, lazily stagnating. And strength looks different on each of us but it is worth building it in ourselves and celebrating it in those we love.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, indeed, Shel, as always you hit a nail on the head that I didn’t even know was there. : ) Strength looks different on each of us.

  • Karen

    All I can say is Wow. Your words always have an impact on me and Wednesday is my favorite day of the week since I know I will have your post to look forward to and today is no exception. Trees have always been reflective for me. How they survive through time even if they get a bit twisted and gnarled along the way. How they each have a place in the world and a roll to fulfill. At times I feel as if i should be further along on my journey, have accomplished more etc. etc. but then your posts come and I am reminded that it is ok to just be. That where I am in life is where I am, it is neither good or bad.. I am still growing, I am still able to reach up to the light. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Karen, there are so many metaphors in trees, aren’t there? I’m always amazed at how they bend in the wind. There must be something in that for us. Keep reaching, Karen!

  • Patricia

    Wow! Just wow! Really made my morning. As a client who has been working hard in therapy I like the visualization of the trees reaching for the light. Ive recently found my light and its spectacular! Thanks for another great Wednesday morning!

    • drkellyflanagan

      I love to hear about someone who has found that spectacular light in therapy. I’m happy for you, Patricia!

  • Shannon

    Wow. Just…wow. Every Wednesday, I eagerly search for these posts. I always enjoy them, but sometimes it’s just exactly what I need to hear. Thank you for finding beauty in the struggle we all face to become who we were meant to be. Your words of wisdom and encouragement, although not directed to me in particular, always feel personal. You have a gift. In this world of “highlight reels”, you give us a glimpse of your “behind the scenes”, and the realness of it all is refreshing. Thank you for seeing things differently than most and being vulnerable enough to share with anyone willing to read.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I’m grateful for your kind and encouraging words, Shannon. Thank you. Glad we can do Wednesday together in this way.

  • Dee

    Simply beautiful. A very timely reminder that even through the darkest of times, the human spirit seeks to grow. From the earliest my eldest daughter has met and continues to meet each and every adversity with courage. Even though her and her partner have tremendous difficulties ahead, your blog helped me to remember that little girl and all she has accomplished. I know her & her partner will also grow and put down new strong roots that will blossom in time. Thank you for blog.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Your daughter is lucky to have a mom who so clearly sees her courage. Keep blessing her with that, Dee. And thank you.

  • This post is incredible. I can’t even express the depth of emotion and inspiration that this post has given me. I’ve shared it to my FB with a sincere entreaty that every person read it. I thank you for this inspired post.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Seth, I’m glad this tapped into a rich place inside of you. I hope whatever it opened up continues to bear fruit in the days ahead. You’re welcome, and thank you!

  • Erica D.

    She “can find her way to joy in almost any situation.” I hope your daughter never loses this ability! I’m sharing this post with a young woman who is struggling with a great amount of change in a short amount of time.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Erica, thank you for such kind wishes for my daughter. I hope she doesn’t lose it, too, though I know that’s a long shot. If she does, I hope it’s not for too long and that finding it again isn’t too painful. My best to the young woman you are caring for.

  • Sarah

    Thank you for a such a beautiful hope-filled post. It’s remixed me of my own determination in the past. And to keep going now while I feel vulnerable searching for the light in which I’ll blossom again.

  • Ginny

    Thanks for the encouraging words. I always look forward to Wednesdays.

  • Esther Bradley-DeTally

    I like your site. The honesty, sharing of emotions; just the daily woven into something bigger. great

  • Nancy Young

    Just wanted to say thanks for your great blog posts. Love the way you write! Loved “Marriage is for Losers” and loved this one. Very insightful, tender, and entertaining.

  • Michelle Jose

    Thanks for sharing, inspiring stories of finding a way through challenging odds fill up our cup of hope…

  • Lynn

    Thank you for being that ‘tree’ for me this day! I so appreciate your insight and honesty and wisdom that is shared here weekly!
    Lynn

  • Jim Sando

    Another beautiful and powerful message. I sent this to several people, telling them that this story reminded me of them…powerful despite adverse circumstances. I’m tempted to find a way to make this story available in the teen counseling center we’re opening here in Orange County California (only with your permission!).

  • Cris

    I’ve always loved your posts but I have to say this is one of the best ones. Thank you for your words and your spirit. Have a great day!