A tree in a story

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel via Unsplash

“Victor Frankl whispered in my ear all the same. He said to me I was a tree in a story about a forest, and that it was arrogant of me to believe any differently. And he told me the story of the forest is better than the story of the tree…I asked God to help me understand the story of the forest and what it means to be a tree in that story.”
Donald Miller

Today we have more ways to stay connected with others than ever before, but I continue to see headlines and read stories about how isolated many of us feel. Not so long ago, survival demanded that we be in face-to-face contact with other people on a daily basis, but technology has made it possible to do almost anything without speaking to another human. It is undeniably quicker and easier, in many cases, to choose interaction with a device over dealing with an unpredictable person– someone who, like ourselves, will rightly expect a level of courtesy from us that we need not offer a machine.

Little wonder, then, that our sense of life becomes distorted, seen through the fish-eye lens of individual experience that magnifies what is closest to us and confines the wider world to compressed edges at the circular border of our vision. Our view of the world is dominated by the disproportionate appearance of our own immediate circumstances. Meanwhile, what looms large to us may appear to others, if they see it at all, as only constricted details at the periphery of their individual worlds.

This solipsistic existence can work very well for us as long as things are going our way. We relegate and delegate much of what seems unappealing, constructing custom-built lives for ourselves that place us in command and in control– or so it seems until something goes wrong. Then we may find that crucial traits such as patience, humility and compassion have atrophied for lack of use, leaving us frustrated and floundering.

The trials of the past five years, and especially of the past 12 months, have reminded me again and again that the surest cure for despair is to step away from the stage of my own life and get a more accurate sense of the larger reality within which every life is situated. It’s not that my problems are unimportant, and my challenges do not become easier simply because I break their stranglehold on my consciousness. But just as Miller says, the story of the forest is better than the story of the tree. All of us are blessed to be part of that story.



  1. Good morning, Julia!
    Frankel is so right! That reminds me of the trees in my back yard. An arborist told me that mine can’t get Dutch Elm disease because they are Chinese Elm. A small consolation, when driving through the neighborhood, and seeing so many trees marked. And I’m afraid that it’s all too easy to blame the Box Elders for the many Box Elder bugs we see each year ….
    But we all have our unique needs and weaknesses, which is why it is so important to see the forest, unblinded by the trees! And every autumn, the trees “work together” to put on their impressive foliage show!

    • Wow, that is so cool that you have learned about your trees. I had no idea there was any such thing as a Chinese Elm. A lot of people (including me) don’t even know the names of all the different trees in their own yards. I worked for the Tennessee Division of Forestry for a brief time, so I have no excuse! 🙂 Yes, the symphony of foliage is so much more impressive than any one individual tree, no matter how splendid it may be. An apt metaphor for the beauty of the human family in all its variety.

  2. Sheila

    Good morning, Julia. Trees do make a forest and your words and thoughts this morning make for another great post. I couldn’t help but think of “Out On The Porch” and our little club and connection on that monthly Verandah. It has become so personal to us, our calendar, enjoyed day by day. I remember once that you said Jeff had already turned to the next month, early morning, before you had a chance. That is dear to me! Our forest is filled with special memories. Our December Verandah may require hot chocolate! ☕️

    • Sheila, I am not peeking at the December Verandah yet, but I am going to have the hot chocolate ☕️ and tea and coffee ready! Everyone is welcome as long as you don’t mind bending an ear, or perhaps I should say, having one bent! 😀 ❤ Fireplace going indoors, where the kettle is on. Skis, snowshoes and sleds optional.

      • P.S. I finally figured out that I can copy and paste your cute icons, but only when they are on the same page. I haven’t been able to figure out how to save them.

  3. Chris

    Hi Julia!
    Great post (they’re all great, mind you, but this resonates today). It brings home the old expression, “can’t see the forest for the trees in front of you”! And…. I learned a new word today: solipsistic! 😊
    In another sense, this is the perfect season in which to proclaim the “story of the forest”. It’s Advent and we’re making Christmas preparations. The story of Christ is bigger than the “trees” of this world. Why? The story is full of forgiveness, redemption, and love. It’s a story that promises hope for all of us “trees”. And that’s a mighty blow against despair! 😊
    Have a wonderful day!

    • Chris, so true. What better time for the joy of the gospel story, than the end of nature’s year (in the northern hemisphere, anyway) where everything appears to be dying and we so need hope and cheer and love? I’ve often thought how wonderful it is that we have Christmas to look forward to at the very darkest (literally) day of the year, when the sun makes its shortest appearance. By the time the holidays are over, we can promise ourselves that each day will bring a little more light…Thanks for being here and joining in the spirit!

  4. Paula Escobell

    A stunningly beautiful truth! Thank you for reminding me to step outside of myself and view the Kingdom perspective. I am so blessed by and thankful for you. Love, Paula

    • Thank you, Paula. It means so much to me to know you are reading. As far as I know, you are the only one from our San Antonio church family who is here with us regularly. So I feel very blessed myself, to have you here! ❤ Love, Julia

  5. Harry Sims

    I hate to think that anyone is being robbed of their life, especially by their own volition.
    Ignorance and apathy are our worst enemies.

    “I don’t know and I don’t care”


    • Harry, I agree that ignorance and apathy do rob us of all that might be ours. Sometimes I think that what appears to be ignorance and apathy is actually fear and defensiveness– often, we may pretend that we don’t know or don’t care because we fear going to where knowing and caring might lead us.

  6. Amen, Julia. A great post worthy of reflection.
    These gadgets that are a part of our lives are of no benefit if they serve to distract us from those around us who need our attention. They are beneficial, however, when they serve as a conduit, connecting us with new and wonderful friendships that we might otherwise sadly never have known.

    • Thank you, Alan. Like so much else in life, it all depends on what we make of it, doesn’t it? I hope you are enjoying the beginning of the holiday season there in the “quiet corner.” New England charm just goes naturally with all that I associate with the Christmas season. I hope the coming weeks are full of blessings for you!

  7. raynard

    Julia, all I’m going to say is a simpile song. ” Simon and Garfunkel’s ” You gotta Friend” Nuff said…

    • Thank you, Raynard! 🙂

  8. Well said.

    • Thank you, Cynthia.

  9. Great photo of the tree to start with and I love this story of the forest and the tree, There would be no forest without the tree but one tree alone does not make a forest. We do need each other and technology only helps so much. As a person who requires a lot of alone time, I also require a lot of time with family and friends, even strangers that I can turn into friends. I realized years ago that I would go shopping just to interact with people. I didn’t need to buy anything, just spread smiles as I went along ending my isolation for an hour or so. Great post, Julia. I’m trying to catch up on my reading here at 4 in the morning. 🙂 Hugs.

    • Marlene, so many of your comments remind me so much of myself, and none more than this one. I can echo pretty much everything you write here (though I’m trying to cut back on the wee-hours-of-the-morning activities! 😀 ) I too need a lot of alone time, but also time out and about where I see and interact with people. Jeff and I shared the trait of needing a lot of alone time, and often we spent “alone but together” hours reading or pursuing separate interests under the same roof or in the same room. That companionable coexistence went a long, long way to smoothing out the many areas of difference.

      I thought I was the only one who loved to go shopping and not buy anything, or buy only one item that I’m out of and really need. I just love being out when it’s not too crowded, but there are plenty of people to meet and greet. Even just standing in a long line at checkout affords opportunities for many friendly exchanges. I think Kelly and Alys and so many of our “blogging bunch” share that trait too, seeing everyone as a potential friend. I still dream of meeting you face to face one day, and somehow I hope to make that happen. Sending “kindred spirit” hugs to you! 🙂

      • Yes, we are very much alike in that way. I’m up early because I have a house full and needed a bit of alone time. I go to bed early too and read and write then as well. I love the time I spend with people but it always costs me something. Alone time recharges the bank. Keep taking care of yourself. Giant squishy hugs.

        • Thank you Marlene. ❤

  10. Just as you were patient to explain blog statistics, visits, page views, and comments, when I asked; I beg your indulgence to the following: You used the words, ” individual experience that magnifies what is closest to us and confines the wider world to compressed edges at the circular border of our vision”. The “compressed edges at the circular border” are looming large for me right now! The millions of innocent lives, not only in Seoul, but also the poor starving citizens of North Korea – are the destined to be annihilated? This question seems so much larger, and in sharper focus than one in the front of my field of view – like my own health, for example.

    • Yes, it’s staggering to contemplate how much more is at stake than our individual situations. Years ago one of Jeff’s residents who was from Korea gave us a beautiful framed paper sculpture of a Korean dancer. Above the dancer’s head in small handwritten script is one word, “Korea…” Ever since we moved here it has been hanging in our half bath of the York home. Now whenever I see it, I am reminded of the catastrophe that may be looming, and prompted to pray yet again for peace.

  11. Jack

    Among the brightest of the many bright you’ve penned Julia. I’m sitting in a cold train station in London, faced with another week away from all that I love, awash in self pity. But you (and Victor) remind me of my bit part in the story of redemption that God so counterintuitively writes. Who is the clay to argue with the Potter?

    And for homework, read Wesley’s Covenant Prayer. I can pray it, but living it is another matter!

    • Jack, thanks for your kind words and especially for the homework to read Wesley’s prayer. What beautiful words, at once reassuring and sobering. As you say, the real challenge is to live it– but praying it is a good start. Hope you are soon home for the holidays!

  12. Ann

    Another fabulous post. I’m going to be thinking about this one for a long time..so much to absorb.

    You and Marlene are not the only ones who go shopping and not buy anything or just one thing. I did this yesterday and shared smiles and words of encouragement at the grocery store!😊

    • Thank you Ann. I’m happy you like it. Wish I had been there at the grocery store with you! It reminds me of that old saying, “If you see someone without a smile, give him one of yours.” By spreading encouragement, you are making a real contribution to defeating despair, and being a gorgeous and important tree in the forest!

  13. Michael

    Not sure I buy this one. What is a Forest without trees? I have a thing to send you, but lost ur E-mail.

    • Ah, but notice you say “trees” (plural) not just one tree. I think I saw an email from Verie in my inbox, but I haven’t caught up with email yet — I’m hoping that is what you wanted to send me.

      BTW I will re-visit the forest/tree question, but to begin with, here’s another quote from Frankl: “…being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

      Or we can just simply go with the words of a much higher authority, Jesus: “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45). It seems pretty obvious to me that Jesus is talking about the forest and not just one tree.

  14. Michael

    Driving is a challenge here. Is it the NASCAR influence?

    • Mike, I wish I could say it was. But my experience is that west coast driving is way, way different from east coast driving– more polite, less impatient. And San Antonio driving is worse than east coast driving! Our car insurance rates, which changed considerably as we moved about the country, seemed to confirm my impressions. I think the west has so much distance (space) between destinations, that a certain amount of patience is hard-wired into people’s expectations about how long it should take to get anywhere. I remember my good friend who moved to L.A. telling me, many years ago, that she was “really close” to LAX and could pick me up anytime. What she called “really close” turned out to be a 45 minute drive, which was a really long drive based on where I lived at the time. So I think there is less of a rushed feel on the west coast. That doesn’t explain San Antonio, though.

  15. Mike

    Perhaps I am too much a solopist but the tree story is my favorite. I agree the forest is also another story, but not necessarily a better one. I keep trying to relate this Frankel quote in terms of Holocaust survivors- of which he was one. In their experience how was the forest story a better one? I can’t get my head around it, when it was Frankel who seemed to focus on the faith of the individual to craft a sense of meaning even in dire circumstances such as the holocaust. Or again- with the slave experience in building the pyramids- where they were literally ground to pieces- where was the better forest story?
    Who would have thought that I would be now this day snowed in at Canton, Georgia.? What a surprise.

    • Mike, it is funny that you got snow so soon after moving to Georgia. In the Atlanta area, it was quite rare during the years I was growing up, and I think it still is.

      Re: the forest question– certainly not everybody thinks the story of the forest is better. But some of us do. I guess it depends, in large part, on how you believe that story will end. Is the earth a good thing, or a bad thing? Is the natural world a place of beauty, or horror? A person who just went through a wildfire might give you a different answer than one who was enjoying the beauty of Yosemite or Lake Tahoe at that same time, a relatively short distance away. But in either case, so much depends on how the story ends.

      Was the story of Jesus a good story, or a bad one? It all depends on how you think it ends. And the conclusions drawn are radically different, depending on whom you ask.

      The whole point is that the big picture is larger than any one person’s experience of it. That’s not to say that everything in the forest is good or right, only that the story of the forest (mankind) is better than the worst attempts of any evil individuals who seek to destroy and harm. If you want to focus on the Holocaust, why do you think the words of one young girl, as recorded in her diary, lived to influence countless people she never knew? By her writing, simply and honestly, such things as this: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

      There are a lot of people who might look at my life (or Jeff’s or Matt’s or any number of other lives) and see only the suffering. But there is so much more than that, and whatever beauty and joy and meaning we have had, has come from being part of a large, magnificent story in which we play only small part. But the end of the story is yet to come, and some of us believe it will be far beyond anything we can now imagine. That’s what I choose to believe, and so far, it seems not only possible, but probable. Hope is a better way to live. I really believe that.

  16. Mike

    Great reply Julia. Lots to ponder. I,m reading “The Naked Now,” Father Richard Rohr in which he talks about the Western mind tendency inherited from the Greeks to practice- dualistic thinking-either or- black or white, yes or no, while he wants us to think about paradox in the spiritual life.
    So was Jesus’ life bad or good? It is both. A bad story about an innnocent person killed via political intrigue, and conspiracy. See Bill O’Reilly- ” The Killing of Jesus.” He does a great job of bringingout the political motives and intrigue behind the murder of Jesus. Not a good thing. Of course he was also a great teacher, who showed us the way and pointed to the p ossibility of life after death and gives us hope for the hereafter. Soi it;s both a good story and a bad one and a paradox. So life is wonderfully tragic and also tragically wonderful and we live in the tension of this paradox. I still find it hard to believe Frankel said that original quote.The other quote you brought in I do believe and points to self transcendance via -“laying down one’s life for others, or “” If you lose your life youi will find it.” Another paradox and Jesus mentioned more than one. Jesus spoke Aramaic and not Greek, hence there is less either or thinking than in Greek thought.
    Also surely you don’t believe that the example of Anne Frank -points to something good out of the hulocaust? She is a small candle of light in a sea of darkness but really was it worth 6 million other lives? I don’t think I am saying that right. Frankel also came out of that experience as well as Elie Wiesel and the great novel , “Night.” Anyway thanks for the reply.
    So what is the tree story for the boomer generation? I am not sure I want to go there.But what have we really accomplished- besides Starbucks and Amazon., making a few people very rich indeed.

    • Mike, Frankel did not say the quote I used. Donald Miller was talking about what he learned from reading Frankel’s works. I’m sure he didn’t literally mean that he heard Frankl whispering in his ear. Jesus did teach a lot of things that to our human “wisdom” might seem like paradox, but he also came up with some pretty stark either/or phrases. For example, Matthew 5:13, Matthew 6:24, Matthew 7:13-26, and the entire chapter of Matthew 25– and that’s just for starters. See also Mark 9:40, Luke 6:43-45, and John 3:20-21, just to give examples from the other gospels. Also a great many of his parables were simplified comparisons of different people or concepts (the prodigal son, the wheat and the weeds, etc.) and that simplification relies on the either/or contrast to get the point across.

      Re: the Holocaust, the Boomer Generation, etc. — these are still not the forest, but only parts of it. These are only pieces of the bigger story. The tree story for the boomer generation is that they are still just trees in the forest. They are not the whole of the forest, and I agree with Miller that it is arrogant for them or anyone else to think that they are the main theme of the story. Having said that, I would not minimize what any generation has accomplished. Remember that we still have no idea what our children and grandchildren will do in the future. Some years, the really big events are hidden in the stories of people who are born that year, or are growing up, as yet unknown, into people who will change the world. Do you seriously think that anyone now living, no matter their location or socioeconomic level, would have lived an easier, happier, healthier life if they had been born 100 years ago? I don’t.

  17. Mike

    The natural world is also a paradox–great beauty and great destruction- tsunamis, hurricanes, lightning. As someone said, “God is moral- nature is not.” So really ,”acts of God does not compute.”

    • Yes, nowhere is the paradox of earthly existence more clearly manifest than in nature.

  18. Mike

    When are y’all coming down this way again? I think Marietta has a tea shop or too? I have been looking for a place there. Verie is still in Seattle

    • Hey, when you say “looking for a place” do you mean a tea place, or a home? Either way, Marietta is a nice place to be. I’m sure they must have a tea shop or two, and lots of other good things as well.

  19. Rene

    This reminds me of a phrase that came to my mind at an AVID conference: they (meaning my students) can’t see the sentences for the words (translated: they are so busy trying to copy the notes exactly as I have written them that they don’t really understand the point I was trying to make. I love words (and I too, just learned “solipsistic”) but there is so much meaning in the sentences. On the flipside, I have recently encountered someone who puts so much effort into choosing his words that I don’t think he sees the resulting message.

    In August, I went to the Museum of Tolerance as part of the Freedom Writers Institute, which was mind-blowing. I thought I knew a lot about the Holocaust but I see now how what I knew barely scratched the surface. Later, I got to hear from the former Freedom Writers how much of an impact Anne Frank’s words had on them. They are still very much a family, a forest if you will; still caring for each other and trying to spread the love (growing a forest?).

    • Rene, have you ever been to the Holocaust Museum in DC? If not, it’s a perfect excuse for you to visit me. It may well be the best-designed museum I have ever been to, but one needs to have at least several hours to really absorb the story. It’s laid out sequentially, from the earliest roots of anti-Semitism up through the end of World War II. It is overwhelming, but somehow manages to end on a powerfully positive note, along with sober words of admonition. I’ve been surprised that many of the people who come to visit DC don’t seem very interested in the museum. Admission is free and it’s well worth setting aside an entire day to visit. If you get out in time, you’re right there adjacent to all the Smithsonian museums on the Mall. Can you tell I’m trying to sell you on the idea? 😀

      • Rene

        No; and I had never been to the LA MOT either. I didn’t realize that it was going to be part of the experience until Erin explained the schedule to us the first night. Years ago I promised my son that we would take a family trip to Washington D.C. (he had wanted to sign up for the 8th grade trip but I just didn’t think we could afford it (and didn’t want to lose the $250 non-refundable deposit). Here is a friendly reminder that I need to make that happen (in other words, SOLD!).

        • OK, lets get those calendars out and pencil in some dates!! Or maybe use ink. 😉 Seriously, watch the airfares. They sometimes have some pretty good deals to DC, even if you try to avoid LAX. (We always tried to use SMF instead of SFO when we lived in the NorCal Republic, and in SoCal, we totally loved the Long Beach airport…I wonder whether it’s still as retro now as it was in 2004?)

  20. Beth

    Julia, My first thought was A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. A lowly mimosa tree that likes poor people. Completely off subject!

    • Beth, you know that no reference to ATGIB could ever be completely off subject where I’m concerned! I need to go back and re-read it since I don’t have it 100% memorized, but its story is never far from my heart.

  21. Rene

    I am also a big fan, I need to find my copy.

    • I think there is a sort of cult of people who love that book, so hopefully it won’t be hard to find another copy if yours is lost. My original paperback copy went missing years ago, but I soon replaced it with a hardcover.

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