Giant Sequoias

Redwood Trees

One of my favorite places is Redwood National Forest. I like it so much that our family went there three times in 2016. Now when our family discusses plans for future adventures my kids will say almost in unison, “No we are not going to the Redwoods!”  I love standing in awe at the age, size, wisdom, and sheer majesty of the redwood trees. Standing among these stately trees leaves me longing to know what insight and knowledge the trees would share with me if they could. I would love to hear the stories mature redwood trees would tell about things have seen, and challenges they have faced, in the 800 to 1500 years they have been alive.

One of my favorite things about Redwood trees is their burls. Burls are an odd and bulgy looking growth at the base and on the trunk of some of the Redwood trees. According to Redwood National Parks, a burl is a knobby growth of woody material full of unsprouted bud tissue. A burl serves as a genetic code of the parent tree. Burls at the base of the tree are called basal burls there primarily for reproduction of the tree. There is another type of burl that grows on the trunk of the Redwood in response to damage, stress, wounds, or falls. A new tree sprouts from the burl as a clone of the original one under stress. I marvel at the astounding resilience of Redwood trees and their ability to rebound and grow in difficult circumstances.

Redwood tree burl
Redwood with a large burl in Muir Woods National Monument

As a professional counselor, and as a fellow human being, I am equally impressed by our human capacity to grow. In September of 2017 our family was in Houston providing volunteer service for individuals impacted by Hurricane Harvey. The homes we worked on had 5-6 feet of water in them for 12 days. We removed destroyed belongings and damaged furniture, carpeting, hardwood flooring, sheetrock, and insulation. In one of the homes the homeowner sat on the stairs of her home while the volunteer crew we were working with ripped her once beautiful home apart. She was somber and almost appeared to be in a state of shock. I approached her and said, “I can’t even imagine how devastating it would be to sit and watch us rip apart your home.” Her eyes brimmed with tears and then she said, “It is difficult, but I also see it as a chance for a fresh start.” This reminded me of something someone said to me when I was at a difficult point in my own life. This person said when we are going along in life we go like this with little ups and downs. Then we hit a difficult wall where we only have the choice to grow exponentially to survive or choose to cease growing. The hard stuff we encounter is a chance to grow in ways we might not have grown previously. 

Like redwood trees, human beings are wired for healing and growth. Years ago, it was believed that our brains stopped growing at a certain age. It is now known that are our brains are capable of growth and change until the day we die.

Our human brains have a system in place to help us be resilient in times of stress much like redwood trees do. Dr. Kelly McGonical, health psychologist, lecturer at Stanford, and author stated, “Following a brain injury, healthy areas of the brain will take over whatever function was lost by the areas of the brain that were injured. And under times of stress, which research has shown can harm the health of the brain, the brain is also at the same time stockpiling stem cells. What this means is that even as the brain is undergoing stress, it is preparing for when it can heal and recover. It is creating and saving the very cells it will need to grow once the stress has passed. Bottom line, your brain like your body has an instinct towards thriving and healing and you can direct that process with the choices that you make.”

Isn’t this remarkable! We have this amazing piece of machinery in our heads that is profoundly proficient at anticipating and providing ways for us to heal from the stresses of life that we encounter. This is exciting news! It is exhilarating to realize that there are ways we can help our brains recover by choosing to make choices that will support growth.

Unfortunately making the choice to grow in stressful times isn’t always easy. At first it might not even seem possible or appealing and for a good reason. Although we would all like think that growth is going to be smooth sailing, and that it appears to somehow be magically easy for others, the truth is growth is normally uncomfortable, messy, and painful. I would dare say that learning to tolerate discomfort is a prerequisite for growth. If we are feeling comfortable we are probably not in a time of growth. It requires us to do things that feel foreign, vulnerable, and downright scary. Often, growth involves the courage to act even when one is uncertain of what the outcome will be. That’s never a comfortable or easy space to sit in.

I picture an unsprouted redwood bud making the decision to take the risk to push itself upward. It’s dark in the burl, but comfortable and safe for the unsprouted bud. Yet, the unsprouted bud gets this feeling from time to time that there is more than just sitting in the dark day after day. One day it has the feeling that it is meant to push itself upward through the burl and needs to push for survival’s sake. This is a scary thought for the little unsprouted bud. I wonder if it has of fears like, “What if I get hurt trying to push upward? What if I?m really not capable of pushing upward? What is up there anyway? What will the other unsprouted buds think?”  In my mind the unsprouted bud wrestles with these fears and then it decides it must push itself even to survive even though the fears are still there. The unsprouted bud chooses to endure the pain and discomfort of transformation as it pushes itself from a bud to a tree. At the end of the day, it still might be uncertain about what it is growing into, but as it grows it finds satisfaction in standing a little taller and it finds that each day becomes a fresh start. As Greg Anderson eloquently stated, “Focus on the journey not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.”

Life can certainly throw some difficult challenges to us. We, like the mighty redwood trees are equipped to grow and thrive after stressful times and we can strive for a new beginning. We may have to push ourselves through some very real challenges and fears, but if we keep ourselves pushing forward we will develop more resilience and happiness in becoming more than what we were previously. When hard times hit, make the choice to grow.

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