I sat down Sunday to draw a tree. I had been thinking about it for awhile, and wanted to slow myself down so I could see it well enough to create it on paper. I also needed a “tree” to put on my business card — a symbol of what I am about. So, finally, after having seen “the” tree many times on my way home from work, I took along the pens and paper and sat down to draw.
The tree was just what I wanted — full, expansive, with its own unique configuration of limbs and leaves — and far too beautiful for me to “capture” on paper. Even though I knew my abilities were undeveloped, I saw at my first attempt that I wouldn’t be able to make “my” tree look anything like “the” tree. I still had beginner’s hands, but had lost my mind to adult expectations.
So I settled on drawing everything but the tree — a complete outline as accurate as possible with the details left for the viewer to fill in. That turned out to be fun — no more messing around with what leaves really look like from 100 feet away, no more mixing and mashing of colors to create green which was actually gold in some spots and grey in others. Just simple black and white, once around and you’re through — negative space, I think the artists call it. Didn’t seem negative at all.
There I sat, humming along and drawing outlines all over the page — big ones, little ones, false starts and true — really enjoying myself. At one point I was musing about how one catches a whole tree in a drawing. As I thought about it, I realized there was more to the tree than what I was seeing. In playing around with perspective, depth, and so forth, I was ignoring the fact that a “whole” tree is only “half” visible. Of course, this isn’t great news, but it opened up a whole new aspect to my drawing. Now I could include the roots and also a new level of meaning — several new levels, in fact. I decided to continue the trunk below the ground level and have the roots form a balancing image to the “visible” portion I had drawn. It turned out well and as I was admiring one of the drawings a phrase came into my mind: “What we cannot see divides us.”
Looking further at the image, I saw similarities between it and the structure of the human brain and nervous system. The tree suggested the brain connected through the spine (the trunk) to the nerve channels in the body below (the roots). In us this structure is “within” while in the tree it is externalized. On another level, there is the division of the brain into hemispheres connected by a cord of nerves called the corpus callosum. When I turned the drawing of the tree with its roots on its side, I had a fairly representative image of the brain — even with the suggestion of a network of nerves in the pattern of roots I had drawn. Then again, the specialization of the hemispheres, one more spatial and wholistic, one more abstract and linear, was also implied, the upper portion of the tree representing the right hemisphere and the roots suggesting the left. Since I do counseling, I also liked the thought implicit in the drawing that one’s roots, the “deeper” level of our being, is also essential in our life and a source of growth and creativity.
But in the end I kept coming back to that phrase, “What we cannot see divides us,” wondering if it was merely cute and rather obvious, or if it could help me understand my life. I realized it wasn’t so obvious, after all. In fact, what has so often seemed to divide us — as individuals, families, nations — has been what we see, what we desire, what we abhor. Someone else’s behavior (or my own) has seemed to create boundaries and barriers; what one nation “sees” as another’s policy of conquest or control has increased the likelihood of that most devastating of divisions, war.
In my drawing of the tree it was my ignorance, not the “ground,” that had separated the tree into “tree” and “roots.” And in that same way, perhaps it is not someone’s behavior which keeps us separate, but our blindness to the source or meaning of that behavior. When I cannot see how your behavior, and my reaction to it, are connected, then I am more likely to react to you rather than interact with you. But, a specific behavior which I cannot “stand” becomes — with under-standing — another opportunity for us to learn about ourselves and each other. As long as groups and nations “see” differences as dangers rather than as diversity — missing our fundamental unity in being humans — our divisions will multiply.
What it comes down to is awareness. Not that I’ll enjoy all interactions alike — part of the “awareness” will certainly be of pain, confusion, and fear — but I won’t be as likely to “refuse” the exchange, or you, and thus impoverish my life’s store of experiences, if I learn to listen (to myself, to others, to what might lie beyond self and others), to see (from all angles, above and below, within and without), to share myself as openly as I can. Then conflict, when it does occur, is a call for more awareness, a new perspective, a more subtle vision, so that in our diversity we may join hands, and in our joining, dance.