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Be like a Big, Old Tree

Updated: Sep 9

Conflict sucks. It's scary to have a different opinion, to feel alone and insecure, to worry about sounding stupid. I wonder how people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg manage. Ginsburg is in a perpetual state of contemplating dissenting opinions. At the end of the contemplation, she must make her one true judgement. She has to be sure. I envy the confidence, clarity and certainty that is required of people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


Lisa Damour, the author of two life-saving books on female adolescent development, says that we can teach our girls about conflict by explaining that, generally, there are three types of conflict management-- the bulldozers, the doormats, and the doormats with spikes. Damour says that, like most humans, girls are not great at conflict. Most people avoid conflict because we worry about being too vulnerable or being judged or standing out. So instead of rooting down and finding solid ground before entering into conflict, we tend to unconsciously fall into one or more of those three categories. 


What we want to strive for instead, says Damour, is to be more like pillars. A pillar stands up for herself without stepping on anyone else (bulldozer), lying down and avoiding the conflict (doormat) or through passive-aggressive techniques (doormat with spikes). In my own conflict self-analysis, I have deduced that I manage conflict using all three of those dysfunctional techniques with different people, in different situations.


But I want to be a pillar. I want to stand tall without sublimating my needs, causing destruction or playing games. I get what Damour is saying about the pillar, but in my mind, I think of the pillar as more of a big old tree; I envision an ancient, weathered Oak tree on a well-travelled city street. Children climb on it, windstorms ravage it, birds and squirrels build their homes in it, lightning might even strike it. But the tree, deeply rooted in the earth, stands tall, enduring the weather and the traffic, the animal life and the humanity. Over years and decades and centuries the tree might shift, settling at an angle from an earthquake or a tornado. The tree might loose a few big branches, but the grounding is always there. I think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as this magnificent tree. She's been at it for a long time, fielding the elements as they come, in the face of it all, still standing up for the truth without bulldozing, lying down or using dirty tricks.


The other day my friend Molly told me the story of her neighbor clandestinely chopping down a grand old tree. The tree, an exceptional tree, as it is called in tree-lover's vernacular, enveloped a large corner of Molly's yard. She loved that tree. It was part of her home, part of her family. As the neighbors cut down the tree, Molly cried. When she described her experience watching the unconscious destruction of this tree, I could feel her agony. Though there was no bulldozer, there might as well have been. To not honor that tree, to negate the hundred-plus years of hard work and enduring presence of that tree, is to step all over it. Now, where that exceptional tree used to stand, shading and protecting Molly's yard with familiar loving branches, there is a big empty space.


It takes time, nourishment, sunlight, love and respect to grow into an exceptional tree. And it takes experience, insight and patience to become a pillar in the face of conflict. The destruction of the tree that bordered Molly's yard feels emblematic of the culture of conflict in our country right now. Instead of being trees--big, exceptional, firmly routed trees standing side by side, enduring the different elements as they come-- the polarized political sides are chopping each other down, leaving big empty spaces instead of creating a beautiful growing forest. 


Conflict, whether between teenage girls or political parties, can be looked at the same way. Wherever there are two different brains there will be two different opinions. It's not difference that is the problem, it's the absence of pillars (or trees). That big tree in Molly's yard was strong. It endured decades of external conflict from the weather and disease and animals, but she stayed alive, firmly rooted in her role as a tree. That tree would still be a tree if someone hadn't bulldozed her down. Had the neighbors made a different choice, there might even be a sapling growing beside her. 


I wonder if it's possible to work towards this-- towards creating a forest of trees (or pillars).  As we continue to evolve, hopefully into a more kind and gentle humanity, I dream of this possibility. It seems like a fantasy, that two drastically different opinions could stand side by side, like a Douglas Fir and Big Leaf Maple; that conflict could result in a reaction other than a bulldozer, a doormat or a doormat with spikes. But I have to believe that it's possible. I want it for myself. I want it for my teenage daughter. And I want it for the world.

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