Friday, April 23, 2010

Simple as a Tree

For all the talk in Taoism of nature, it still chaps my hide when someone happens on this blog with a "survival of the fittest" attitude. Such individuals always seem quick to point out that, in the wild, the weak links tend not to make it through the first year and, if they manage that, they tend to be the first to die of starvation or are the victims of predators. So, according to them, if a person subscribes to the Taoist philosophy, this should mean said individual should not seek to coddle any human and that each person will make it or not solely based on their own efforts.

That all sounds well and good -- though it's a perspective I strongly disagree with -- if such people were consistent in their belief. However, more often than not, I've found that they aren't consistent at all. Their "survival of the fittest" mantra gets applied haphazardly.

For example, I once knew a young fellow who purchased a home. His intention was that he would live in this house forevermore. It wasn't in the best shape, so he spent a good deal of time and money fixing the roof, foundation, plumbing and updating the wiring. I mean, one can't expect to make one's home their long-term castle if it's not up to snuff.

He next turned his attention to the yard. While it had many features he liked, the one thing it was missing was a tree. He wanted to have a big oak tree in the front yard to provide shade in the hot summer and colorful leaves in autumn.

He went to a local nursery one spring day and purchased an oak sapling. He went home and found the perfect spot for it and planted it.

He didn't pay much attention to it for a while. One day he noticed it was sort of leaning to one side. "This won't do," he thought. "I want my tree to grow up straight." He went into his shed and selected a wooden stake. He pounded the stake into the ground next to the tree and, using some twine, tied the sapling to the stake.

As spring turned into the dog days of summer, he noticed that his little tree wasn't looking very good. "This won't do," he thought. "I want my tree to be strong and healthy." So, he got out some fertilizer and mixed it in with the soil around the tree. He also established a watering schedule by making notations on a calendar.

As time passed, his little oak sapling began to grow to become a small tree. The trunk was relatively straight and the tree was healthy. However, more leaves seemed to be growing on one side of the tree than the other. "This won't do," he thought. "I want my tree to be full of leaves so that I can lounge under it in the summer." So, he grabbed his loppers and pruned back one side in order that both sides would grow at near the same rate.

In time, that tiny oak sapling become a magnificent tree. Whenever neighbors would happen by, he was quick to point it out and would tell them of all the nurture and care he had provided it. He was proud of his mighty oak and it was the centerpiece of his front yard.

What's wrong with this picture?

This man was one of those who harped incessantly on the "survival of the fittest." When his niece told him that her unborn child would be disabled, the man brusquely suggested that she abort it because animals leave the sickly runts of the litter to die.

When a neighbor complained that his unemployment benefits were running out, the man told him to quit whining. "You got to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps," he told him. "If you can't do that, then you deserve to starve."

When a friend lamented that a new big box store might well put his family-run company out of business, the man was less than sympathetic. "Competition is what makes this country great," he declared. "If you can't compete, then you're in the wrong line of work!"

On issue after issue, the drumbeat was the same: only the strongest survive.

Yet, if the man had applied this belief to his now mighty oak, it likely would not have survived. He coddled it. He nurtured it. He gave it undue care and devotion. And it was through all his time, energy and commitment to the survival of this sickly tree that it was able to enjoy a long and fruitful life.

If you're willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a tree, why not humanity?


  1. i love this story! how true, and i know a lot of people like that!

    also, our cat had 2 litters of kittens, one in the spring, one in the fall. in the spring litter, the weak kittens got sick early when the weather was still cold and died and the strong kittens survived. however in the fall litter, the weak kittens got sick first and survived because the weather was warm, but the strong kittens didn't get sick until it was winter and died.

    yes, there is an element of survival of the fittest in nature, but it is by no means the only element driving nature's survival mechanisms! luck and circumstance have a lot to do with it, as do personality and the strength of your "group" (herd, etc) or the personality of your mother, or your gender, etc...

  2. In the context of survival, strength is synonymous with health. To say that only the strong survive, means that only those who are able to preserve their health will survive. Luck is certainly a factor, but in terms of human beings, knowledge and skills go a long way in influencing the likelihood of survival. And people are much more likely to survive when they join forces with others, pooling their resources together, sharing knowledge and skills, and helping each other out.

    So perhaps it could be said that nurturance is a quality of strength, and neglect is a quality of weakness. And that by helping those who are weaker become stronger, the strong actually contribute to the overall strength of the whole community, where everybody benefits and becomes stronger and more likely to survive, as a direct result of this mutual nurturance. Whereas just like when a mother neglects her baby, the babies health will decline, so also will the health of the community decline when it neglects the needs of its greater community. When its every man for himself and nobody cares about or helps anybody else in need, such a community is doomed to collapse.

    On the other hand, there is such a thing as over coddling. Like if you're teaching a child how to ride a bike, there comes a point where you must take off the training wheels, or else they won’t ever really learn how to ride a bike on their own.

    Also ever hear the story about the butterfly in its cocoon? I forget where I heard it, or exactly how it goes, but it goes something like this. A man found a butterfly still in its cocoon that was about due to come out. So he decided he would help the butterfly, by carefully opening up the cocoon for it, but when he did that, and it came out of its cocoon, the butterfly was unable to fly. Because apparently for the butterflies wings to develop properly, it physically needed to break through the cocoon on its own, in its own time, and with its own effort, otherwise its development would be permanently disabled, and it will never be able to fly.

    So perhaps there is a time when it is beneficial to nurture another, and a time when one must stand on their own feet and nurture themselves.

  3. I appreciate that you both left well thought out comments (which is NOT to suggest that this is an aberration). I particularly like how Cym drew out the differences between coddling and each of us taking responsibility for ourselves.

  4. i agree cym, as a mother i'm struggling to provide a balance between nurturing and fostering independence! great reply to a great post. :)


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