MARCH 16 2010 15:32h
In today’s complex world, an old saying provides a clear guideline for understanding a lot of things: ˝Nobody can be other than what he is.˝
There’s a German saying that’s been around for years. Nobody knows who coined it, but in today’s complex world, it provides a clear guideline for understanding a lot of things: “keiner kann anders sein als er ist” (nobody can be other than what he is).
Nature provides this instruction in all sorts of everyday activities; for example chopping wood. Have you ever noticed how some pieces, soft and smooth, split at the slightest touch from the ax, as though they are already internally divided into neat, uniform sections and ask only for the tiniest bit of encouragement to submit? It’s hardly an effort, a child could chop them with a pocket knife, or even a toothpick. On the other hand, there are the big, lumpy, barky pieces, ugly, full of knotholes and riven with curls, twists, and coils that are almost impossible to split, even with the sharpest blade, the most muscular heft, and the strongest will.
It takes a special type of person to conquer this type of log, and there’s no use wishing the log split easier, or the one swinging the ax were more powerful. After all, this log has its duty to perform and cannot be otherwise. If a tree were comprised only of the yielding, softer parts of the wood, it would topple and crash with the first tempest winds blowing down from the Velebit.
A strong, firm tree, in order to survive and thrive, needs the knotholes, the twists and turns throughout its entire trunk to protect the parts that have never stood alone and are unable to independently withstand the forces of Nature, the ice storms, and strong winds. Together they represent a harmony of purpose, one protecting and completing the other.
The same can be said of human beings with all their myriad skills and proficiencies, all their shapes, contours, appearances: the farmer with his tough, calloused hands and weather-beaten face, who isn’t pretty, has never been out of his village or read a book in his life, and couldn’t discuss the tree symbolism in Flannery O’Connor’s writing, but he can coax out of a rocky peace of earth, with simple blood, sweat, and tears, a feast fit for am emperor as well as thousands of other people, who think tomatoes or squash or onions appear by means of some vegetable Big Bang theory. Is the simple farmer not the tough and gnarly wood of the tree that protects the weaker, more “attractive” but also more vulnerable pieces from destruction, as they agonize over their investment fund losses?
Others are natural warriors, good for little else, mountain people, for example, who have had to constantly fight for their survival as well as independence under conditions of extreme harshness. The Highland Scots, say, known as the toughest and best warriors (“Dinarci” in Croatian terms), full of passion and perhaps even ill-mannered at times, coarse, uncultivated, even ugly to some, but defying constant attempts over the centuries to conquer them, and thereby ensuring that others who were not fighters (the “lowlanders”), but poets or weavers or wine-makers, were able to fulfill their destinies as free men and not slaves.
The natural order of things, in animals as well as human beings, is a concept that was addressed by the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, in one of his discourses, “On Adornment”: “We see that a dog is born for one thing and a horse for another, and a nightingale, so speaking generally each of them was beautiful when it best fulfilled its nature; and since the nature of each is different, each would be beautiful in a different way.” All would agree that a horse cannot bark and fetch a bone, or jump into his master’s lap for a petting, and if he were to try to do so, it would be an ugly, unnatural sight. Just as absurd is a warrior planting corn in the field, bending over the earth in supplication instead of taking it by force of will, or a poet cutting wood instead of coining melodious phrases, complaining bitterly all the while about the gnarly, recalcitrant pieces that simply refuse to split.
And all of a sudden we’ve come full circle, we’re back to the wood, some parts gnarly and obstinate, others smooth and yielding, but working in perfect and natural harmony to protect the tree from ill winds.