In the Fall of 2009, I was surveying my yard, when I realized that there was a tree growing out of a shrub – actually, it was several trunks growing out of the stump of an old tree, which had then been replaced by the aforementioned shrub. I thought the whole thing looked ridiculous, so I got out my saw and started cutting down these new tree trunks. There were lots of them, so I started with the smallest shoots. After cutting off at least half a dozen mini-trees, I decided to let the three thickest trunks stay, to see how they did in 2010.
On our first day home from our summer 2010 sabbatical, we were re-acquainting ourselves with the yard when we made a delightful discovery: one of the three mini-trees that had been left standing had 2 medium-sized apples! I had given no thought to what kind of trees these rogue stalks were, but now I was delighted to see that I had an apple tree. Immediately, I began to plan how I would cultivate these trees to enhance their fruitfulness. Since all of the trunks seem to be growing from a common root system, my idea centered around cutting down at least one of the two trunks that had not produced apples, thereby sending more nutrients to the productive trunk. And so, I began to anticipate Spring, and even next Fall, when I dreamed of enjoying more apples growing right in our back yard.
Late fall was the first time I noticed Zachary* trying to climb one of those apple trees. Zachary loves to climb just about anything, but I didn’t think he’d get very far with these. They are tall (10 feet at least) and thin as my forearm, and the branches are all high up on the trunks. It seemed like these were unclimbable. Of course, impossible isn’t a meaningful category for Zach. He quickly figured out how to use two of the trunks in tandem to aid in climbing, and within a week they were his favorite climbing trees.
*For those of you who are new to our family, Zachary is my youngest son, who has autism. And, some sort of Spiderman gene. By which I mean classic Spiderman, and not the Broadway version, where people are falling all the time. Zach never falls.
One of Zach’s favorite tricks is to climb up about 8 feet, and then position his rear end in the branch-notch of one of the trees; next, he swings his feet up onto a branch of the neighboring trunk, and leans back, like he’s in a hammock. Seeing this for the first time is a memorable experience, as he sits serenely in the gently swaying trees.
Zach has unusual sensory demands. He craves intense stimulation of his senses, more so than most of us. So, the sensation of swaying in the trees as he sits almost unattached to the trees is soothing for him, even if it is terrifying for us (To see how much he enjoys this sort of sensory input, see the attached video).
Zach climbed the apple trees every time he could get to them over the Winter, and now that Spring has arrived, they are one of his favorite backyard destinations. Swaying in the trees helps Zach to be calm, and to be happy. It is as comforting for him, I suppose, as the idea of growing my own apples in the back yard.
That brings me to the question that opened this post. I have looked forward to this Spring, when I would cut down one or two of those non-fruit-producing trunks, thereby diverting the nutrients they would receive to the one trunk that actually grew apples. But now, I’ve decided that I’m not cutting down those trunks. I will hope that another year of health and growth helps my apple tree produce more apples, but I will also let Zach keep his climbing and swaying trees, because they make his life better – and that’s not an exaggeration. For a boy who has to work so hard to make himself understood, who has to spend so much of his time trying to get the sensory regulation that lets him feel at peace, these apple trees really do make his days better. What I’ve encountered is an everyday example of saying no to the good (maximizing the apple-producing qualities of my tree) to say yes to the better (keeping the tree trunks as a sensory regulator for Zach).
Lots of us like to say yes to everything, or at least, to everything that is good. We want to serve all the people we can, we want to experience all the good things we can, we want to give our kids every opportunity to participate in any sport or activity or program that might make them happy or enriched. But we live in an over-programmed, consumer-driven culture. There will always be another good thing to do, to see, to try, to sign up for. We will burn out long before we exhaust the list. How do we discern what to say “yes” to, and what to say “not this time” to?
We need to know what we are most essentially about, and be willing to say no to those things that are good, but not at the heart of our purpose. We have to say no not only to bad things, but to good things, to make sure we have the time, energy, and resources to say yes to the best things. The relationships and activities that are most important to who we are as a person, or as a family, have to be where we give our primary attention. I see a lot of families who try to do everything, and end up giving minimal attention to the things they say matter most to them (family relationships and church, usually). Does that mean they were fooling themselves about what mattered most to them, or did they undermine their own goals by not being careful about what they added to their plates?
The same rules apply to organizations (like the church, which is of primary interest to me). If we try to do everything…well for one thing, we won’t be able to, and we’ll be frustrated. But even to the degree that we try, we’ll diffuse our ability to really get the most and best out of the things that are most important. We will be spread too thin. Churches in this cycle end up expending a ton of energy, and leaving all of their core members feeling like they are doing everything they can, but still, somehow, can’t get to key practices that they say are essential. We need to know what we have been put in our communities for, and then do those things, and leave the rest for someone else.
Which is to say: I’m hoping for a few apples this year, but just a few. That tree has a bigger job.