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The Courage of Tall Timber

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”― Nelson Mandela

The image of a United Airlines Boeing 767 slamming into the side of the World Trade Center, exploding into flames and ultimately leading to the destruction of the iconic 110 story office tower, is everlasting and horrific- forever seared into our hippocampus. Then to consider the enormous tragedy of the hundreds of lives snuffed out at that moment and the emotional turmoil it continues to bring to thousands of their loved ones. For the rest of us, that image created a great sense of fear and foreboding.

This image, as unforgettable as it was fear-inducing, caused any number of interesting consequences. One consequence was a rather sharp increase in auto traffic fatalities in the year following 9/11.

Afraid to fly, Americans used their cars to travel instead. Unfortunately, driving can lead to accidents which can lead to injury and death. And for a period of time, death due to traffic accidents rose substantially. The fear of flying seared deeply into our amygdala, the almond-shaped set of nuclei located in our temporal lobe, caused us to briefly discard the actuary tables of risk and drive instead. The tables are stark by their differences. The probability of dying from an inflight terrorist attack is 1 in 540,000 while the probability of dying in an auto accident is 1 in 7000.

Of course, we don’t pour over actuary tables as an insurance actuarian does. The tables of statistics tell them old men should stay off ladders. We attempt to make our calculations using our complex brains without always having the benefit of facts or tables. In doing so, we give our fear a big voice. If allowed, our fear will sweep aside logic and reason and have us choose a behavior that is even greater in risk. The traveling sales executive who died on his way to a sales meeting hit head-on by a drunk driver is in some ways both a victim to the selfishness of a drunk and to his or her fear of flying.

Nearly all of us, when confronting our fear, will claim it real and rational. And indeed, fear does have a role in our sense of preservation. An approaching ferocious bear will have us run or climb or looking for a large rock with adrenalin pumping (the probability of being killed by a bear is 1 in 16,584). Our fear will be given full expression as the brain, making many calculations instantaneously, attempts a way out of a dangerous predicament. Fear plays an important role in our survival as it triggers a fight or flight response.

Judging by the amount and intensity of our collective anxiety, the COVID pandemic has clearly triggered a great sense of fear in many. The images of menacing orbs the size of a grapefruit gathered in globules with blue tentacles are everywhere. Soon after a photo gets enhanced showing a sneeze spreading from an infected individual in a grocery store with billions of disease particles arching over aisles before settling to the floor. These images enhanced our fear and sent us into the warm humid embrace of the face mask.

It appears the leadership skills of bringing calm to the masses and inspiring us to overcome our challenges have been lost. Rather, the decision of keeping us in a state of some fear has apparent political benefits. But that is not new. History is full of examples of political leaders using collective fear for their purposes. A current example is Russia using the fear of a neighboring countries entrance into NATO as a way to gain public support for war.

Perhaps it’s best to think of fear as not something that can be done away with or banned, or ridiculed, or ignored, but to be ‘triumphed’ over as Nelson Mandela wisely put it. “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

I would love to be able to ask a tall timber like Mr. Mandela for his advice on how we might triumph over our fear of COVID or any fear for that matter (he died in 2013). Would he lead me to Psalm 23? Would he have me read a book, a poem, a short story?

Decades ago, I stood underneath a very tall Sequoia deep in the heart of the Sequoia National Park in California. One does not stand beneath a thousand-year-old Sequoia and not look up and marvel. The size, the age, the strength, the reach, and the thousands of storms endured, stretch our comprehension of time, and in some ways, its insignificance. This is why I so happily stumbled upon this short story by one of our planet’s greatest novelists, Herman Hesse.

Herman Hesse's novels include Demian, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game. His writing suggests a robust curiosity of notions of courage. So much so, he couldn’t look at a tree without seeing the symbol of one of our greatest human virtues.

For Me, Trees…

“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.

In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.

Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow. Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life. A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail. A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live. When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all. A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one's suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother. So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”

Herman Hesse

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