A wise man led me to a cordon of stately trees surrounding his pasture. He hoped the parable they held for him would serve for me as well I knew him to be a wise man, living in seclusion with his wife, but willing, he said, to receive me if I were ever in his part of the world.
I had heard him speak years before and had recently read several of his books. Now I was seeking him out because I had hopes his wisdom might relieve the gnawing melancholy that darkened my days. Financial losses, love denied and an old disability had combined to take much of the savour from my life.
On a clear, late-winter day, I found him on his farm, surrounded by fields and woodlands shrouded in snow. After years of writing and lecturing and helping others, as a minister and "physician to the soul," he was now applying his own wisdom to himself. He had been struck down by a stroke. It left him paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak. The original prognosis had been grave. They told his wife, of over 50 years, that recovery of speech was unlikely. Yet within a few weeks he had regained his ability to talk and he was determined to recover still more of his faculties.
He rose to greet me. He was a distinguished-looking man of middle height, moving slowly, aided by a cane, with an unmistakable sparkle in his gaze. He led me into his study. It was lined with books, new and old, all surrounding a desk on which sat a word processor and reams of papers and magazines. He said he was glad to hear that his books had helped me. They had, indeed, I said, but still, a series of setbacks had added up to a sorrow I wasn't sure I could master.
"Then, in a sense, you're grief-stricken, "he said. But I hadn't yet lost anyone really close to me, I protested.
"Nevertheless, what you're going through is related to grief. What's essential is to mourn your losses fully and find solace by learning to live with them." People who don't, he added, wind up bitter and disillusioned by sorrow. They're unable to find solace. But others who creatively use the act of mourning can gain new sensitivity and a richer faith. "That's why you so often hear that we have to talk out our feelings, express our emotions. That's part of the mourning process. Only then can healing follow.
"Let me show you something," he offered, pointing through the window to a stand of bare sugar maples, stolidly facing the sharp winds that plucked at their barren branches and sent a dusting of yesterday's snowfall shimmering down. A former owner had planted the maples around the perimeter of a one-hectare pasture.
We walked out from a side door and moved slowly on the crunching snow to the pasture. It was a rocky expanse rife with grass and wild flowers in summer, but now brown and wizened by frost-kill. Strung between each large tree, I noticed, were strands of old barbed wire.
"Sixty years ago the man who planted these trees used them to fence in this pasture, and saved a lot of work digging fence-post holes. It was a trauma for the young trees to have barbed wire hammered into their tender bark. Some fought it. Others adapted. So you can see here, the barbed wire has been accepted and incorporated into the life of this tree - but not of that one over there."
He pointed to an old tree severely disfigured by the wire. "Why did that tree injure itself by fighting against the barbed wire, while this one here became master of the wire instead of its victim?" The nearby tree showed no marks at all. Instead of the long, anguished scars, all that appeared was the wire entering on one side and emerging on the other - almost as if it had been inserted by a drill bit.
"I've thought a lot about this grove of trees," he said as we turned to go back to the house. "What internal forces make it possible to overcome an injury like barbed wire, rather than allowing it to distort the rest of life? How can one person transform grief into new growth instead of simply allowing it to become a life-destroying intrusion?"
He could not explain what happened to the maples, he admitted. "But with people," he continued, "things are much clearer. There are ways to confront adversity and work your way through that mourning period. First, you try to keep a youthful outlook. Then you don't bear grudges. And perhaps most important, you make every effort to be kind to yourself. That's the tough one. You have to spend a lot of time with yourself, and most of us tend to be far too critical. Sign a peace treaty with yourself, I say. Forgive yourself for the silly mistakes you've made."
After another pensive glance at the maple grove, he led the way back into the house. "If we are wise in the way we handle grief, if we can mourn promptly and fully, the barbed wire doesn't win. We can overcome any sorrow, and life can then be lived triumphantly. I try to keep a growing edge on my life, seeking new knowledge, new friendships, new experience," he continued, glancing over to the computer and half a dozen new books on his desk. He had been waging his own battle. He was still frustrated by his partially paralyzed right side, but he wasn't conceding defeat.
"We can use our painful experiences as excuses for retreat. Or we can accept the promises of resurrection and rebirth." His gaze turned towards the snow-mantled pasture across the road. "You have your problems. I have my own struggles. I'll work on mine," he offered, "if you work on yours."
I thanked him, and promised I would, and then we shook hands. We had a deal. I felt I had won some new understanding - and now had a strategy for handling my sorrows.
As I drove down the valley, I could glimpse his farm across the meadows. The wind toyed with the lofty tops of those living fence posts, which, though still mysterious, had so much to say to all of us.
Look for God in all things; His lessons abound everywhere! ~ Stafford