New video now out in the ‘Mistakes we make in thinking’ series
I am currently working on a book of 29 ‘Parables of the Middle Way’, each accompanied by commentary. I will be posting some example parables here from time to time, and any comments will help me refine them. I already posted ‘The Ship’ a while ago, and here is another one, ‘An Acre of Forest’
“In addition to the property we have discussed, your grandfather left you something you might not have expected in his will” said Mr Jenkins, looking over his documents.
“Oh, what’s that?” replied Petra, intrigued.
“An acre of forest? I didn’t even know he had an acre of forest to leave! Where is it?”
“In the Elwyn Valley, I believe, about five miles from here. It’s an odd little bit of land, and I’ve no idea how he acquired it or why. He doesn’t seem to have exploited it for timber, or anything of that kind.”
“He did love forests” said Petra. “Perhaps he just wanted to preserve it.”
“Perhaps that’s the best explanation” replied the solicitor. “Still, Mrs Dawkins, what do you want to do with it? If you’d like me to put it on sale on your behalf, I could set that in motion.”
“What sort of forest is it? Is it ranks of conifers, or are they broadleaved? Are the trees mature?”
“I’ve no idea, I’m afraid. I’ve never viewed it. We could go and look if you think that’s important.”
“Well, I don’t need to take up your time with that, Mr Jenkins. Just show me on the map where it is, and I’ll go and look by myself. Once I’ve seen it, perhaps I’ll be able to make a sensible decision.”
“Well, don’t expect too much. A single acre is not a very large area. And it may not have been well-managed so as to look its best. Here, you can see where it is marked on the map.”
Despite this premonitory warning, when Petra parked her car in what she was sure was the right place, and looked at her acre of forest, her heart immediately fell. All she could see were ranks of pines: Norway spruce of a kind that is grown all over the British uplands simply to make as fast a profit from timber as possible, of the kind that shades out all undergrowth and forms a thick mass of impenetrable dead branches under the trees. She found it difficult to believe that her romantically-minded grandfather would have bought a timber plantation just to make money, and her opinion of him began to take a plunge as a consequence.
She was about to drive off in a rage against her grandfather, when she thought perhaps she should look beyond the initial rank of pines, in case there was a clearing there or something. Also, if she was going to sell it, she’d better check what condition the trees were in and how mature they were. So, she barged her way through an initial row of dead pine branches. To her surprise, there were no pines behind the first row. Instead there was a stand of ash trees. Oh, and over there were some beeches, and there were some oaks too. A clearer way opened out between the trees, with undergrowth around her, and she found herself in a charming clearing, with wild flowers, birds singing and a squirrel scuttering off through the branches. Quite a variety of trees surrounded the clearing: sycamores, rowans, London plane… She couldn’t even identify all the types of tree.
No wonder her grandfather had bought it! Now she understood. Grandad had had an eye for the hidden and unappreciated. Her grandmother had been rather like that: an initial austere, utilitarian exterior, but when you got to know her she could be the warmest, kindest person in the world. This acre of forest was exactly the same: not just one type of tree but many. Not just ugliness but beauty too. Not just commercial timber, but beautiful mature broadleaved trees as well.
It was clear what she needed to do. She would preserve it too, and pass it on to her grandchildren as well. Her grandfather had left no particular instructions for his ashes, but now she also knew where to scatter them.
The acre of forest is a parable about the multiplicity of human individuals – and indeed the same point, more obviously, applies to human groups. Most of us have at least some awareness of the dangers of stereotyping a group of people, whether they are grouped by race, gender, age group, profession or whatever other criteria. However, we are far more likely to assume that if someone expresses (or implicitly shows) a particular belief, then this is essential and definitive of them. Far from it – the beliefs of a particular human individual are like the trees growing in an acre of forest. Some may resemble each other and be of the same species, but others may not.
We cannot know whether or not there is any kind of essential unity (a ‘self’) in an individual – this would be a metaphysical claim. However, we can judge from experience that multiplicity is quite likely, and that we are rarely single selves. This is perhaps most obvious in people who have conditions such as multiple personality or bipolar disorder, when we tend to regard extremes of differing belief in the same person as indicative of a mental disorder. However, it applies to a lesser degree to all of us. Nearly all of us, if we are human, make resolutions that we fail to keep, forget to answer emails, have more positive or more negative moods, and change our language to suit the company. This is not a question of pretence, masking who we really are (as if we could know who we really are), but rather of simply being innocently various.
We are perhaps most likely to take people’s beliefs as definitive when they themselves take them very seriously and believe that they are living their whole lives by those beliefs – as is the case, say, with strong religious or political beliefs. However, it is very unlikely that they are. Even a saint, deeply committed to certain religious beliefs, does not make all their everyday judgements with reference to those beliefs, but rather consults everyday practical beliefs. If St Francis needed to wash his robe, he would have made the same judgement that it needed washing whether he was a Christian, a Buddhist, or an atheist. A social belief like the correct way to greet someone is also usually the product of a particular cultural context, regardless of the religious or political beliefs in it.
When a person seems to consist only in a rank of pines, then, perhaps we should bear in mind that there may be lovely rowans behind them – or, of course, the reverse.
Photo by Oliver Herold (Wikimedia Commons – CC)
A new talk edited from the 2014 retreat. It discusses how we need to distinguish the ideas of self and ego – to avoid beliefs about the self whether positive or negative, but nevertheless work with the experience of ego as we find it.