Christmastide is ending today, the twelfth day of Christmas, and this weekend our Christmas tree will be coming down to be recycled. Surprisingly, even though it’s been up for almost three weeks, it is still drinking water and hasn’t yet begun dropping its needles. I know, though, if I left it long enough it would eventually lose the capacity to pull up the moisture it needs to remain supple and green and would begin to turn brittle and brown.
A few years ago, early one Sunday morning in December, I was parking my car near a place in our neighborhood where they sell Christmas trees just as the workers were unloading the trees from their truck and setting them up on the sidewalk to sell. As I watched them, I had a visceral feeling of repulsion. I saw Christmas trees in a way I never had before: as living beings whose bodies had been cut in half. Suddenly this yuletide practice seemed brutal and irrational to me, that we should slaughter trees by amputating them from their roots in order to celebrate a spiritual holiday.
And yet, in spite of my ambivalence about it, we have continued to buy a tree each year not only because we love the beauty of a decorated Christmas tree, but because it helps support the tree farmers in our region who would otherwise be selling their land off to developers. In an ironic way, the slaughter of trees helps save the land. Realizing this strange paradox, I feel enormous gratitude for the tree that stands in our living room, and in my heart I thank it for its sacrifice.
I think we are more like trees than we know. We have an outer, visible aspect of ourselves that everyone can see, the aspect that interacts with the external world and is engaged in activities, and, just like we do with our Christmas trees, we usually take great care to attend to its appearance. But there’s also the inward, hidden part of us that is just as essential to our well being but from which too many of us are cut off. It is the aspect of ourselves that taps into mystery, the unseen dimension out of which the outer being arises. Jungians would speak of it in terms of the unconscious that has access to the archetypal energies that fuel our psyches.
Ours is an externally oriented culture, and seems to be more so than ever now that we have technologies that keep us plugged into the external world 24/7. Trying to live constantly attentive to the external world, though, is like trying to live like a tree cut off from its roots. We lose our connection with something vital and life-giving and, over time, we begin to wither and die.
Some cultures are much wiser than ours about staying connected with their roots. In some cultures, for instance, people wouldn’t dream of starting their day before they’d gathered to talk about the dreams that had visited them at night. They understand that it is the unseen realm of mystery that offers them the wisdom they need to live well, and that only by being rooted in and nourished by that dark, unseen realm can the external self thrive.
People in the Western world might be wising up, though, to the fact that having to be at the beck and call of the external world round the clock is simply unsustainable. Last week, the Volkswagon company made a landmark agreement with their workers’ union that the company’s email servers would shut down after the work day so that workers will no longer receive work messages on their BlackBerries when they are off-duty. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a trend.
They say that a tree’s roots underground are as extensive as the trunk and branches that are visible above ground. Can you imagine how much healthier, happier and stable we would be — individually and collectively — if we lived our lives as balanced as trees do in their natural state, tending to growing our roots as much as we do our outer selves?