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The Tree in the Storm:Toughness and Strength

The Tree in the Storm:Toughness and Strength

The classic story of the two trees in the storm demonstrates a difference between toughness and strength. It is apt for us as adults, and also for the way parents bring up children. The two trees represent two ways of viewing life- two views of reality.Do we want to be tough, or do we want to be strong? No, these are not synonyms; and seeing the difference between them is not hair-splitting. It is being aware of a subtlety, a fineness of personality. And beyond that, it is being aware of how we view life and how we choose to live it.

When you think of something cooked tough, what images come to mind? Difficult to cut, bite or chew, dry, juiceless, joyless, unyielding. What do you what to do with it? Throw it away, maybe after expressing anger at its inflexible nature.

Now think of something cooked strong? Actually, you can’t- doesn’t really sound appropriate does it? Crunchy comes to mind, raw, uncooked, medium rare…. those are the closest. With these words are associated juicy, tasty, easy to bite off, easy to chew [unless of course we have no teeth!]. Definitely giving more pleasure than the tough one!

What’s the point of this exercise? Well, think of a tough person and then visualize a strong one. Any differences?

Let’s take a journey together on this one. Would you indulge yourself for a moment- clear and center yourself and continue reading.

When we want ourselves or children to be tough- this is what we expect: a self-reliant person who doesn’t show weakness by bursting into tears, doesn’t ask for help, and doesn’t take it even if someone has the temerity to offer it. If there is emotion, it’s more likely to be anger – maybe quiet anger, sullenness, rather than a screaming anger. No display of inner indecisiveness, vulnerability or confusion. Would not like to be a burden on anyone else; and would not like to take the burden on, of someone else either. The tough person can be kind, offering help when required, but looking down on the person who needs help as one who is weak. When the tough person sees weakness, s/he tries to point that out to the other, and holds up an ideal tough behavior in the situation: don’t cry, be tough. The tough person would not let anyone take advantage of them. Strong – we feel- stoic, immovable too- essentially one, al-one.

In the metaphor of cooking, the tough person is quickly toughened; the first heat of the world causes a crust to form: a hard, strong, virtually impenetrable layer that the world cannot easily break through. The inner core and outer layer are sharply defined. But as the heat of the world is not allowed to penetrate, the inside is raw, not strong, not capable of handling the vicissitudes of life.

And now think of a strong person: this also is a person who would not want to burden anyone. But this is a person who gives and takes help freely whenever the need arises. If I am ill, is it any good to go on with daily life as if nothing has happened? If a friend offers it, why not take help? If I can’t lift a chair, why not ask a classmate to help? They know I’m there for them whenever they need the same- or a different form of help. Things aren’t always repaid in the same way- there are many ways of evening out the balance. This is not a person who believes it is only the weak who need help. Help is not the cry of weakness but a symptom of co-operation, strength in unity. Yet s/he can accept weakness in others too; lending strength till the other grows stronger. S/he can cry and allow others to cry if needed. There is a wealth of emotions shown- vulnerability, confusion, some indecisiveness. There is pliancy and give-and-take in a strong person’s life. Not alone, but at-one with others.

To return to the metaphor of cooking, the strong person has allowed the heat of life to gently penetrate every pore. Ripening naturally like fruit, the core gets ripe and mature before the outside. There is a gradual melting from the outer layers into the inner core. The exterior may seem pliable, and weak to some, but the core is strong and can withstand a lot of pressure.

We can recognize a tough person when we see one; but sometimes a strong person does not even recognize strength in himself or herself!

The tough person has a well-defined inner and outer layer; and they have to be kept separate, for the outer strength to be maintained. When there is pressure, therefore, the inner core has to be safeguarded; there is little or no co-operation between these inner and outer layers. A problem has to be viewed as coming from life, the other person, outer circumstances; because the fragile core could not accept that a problem can lie within. When the outer toughness invites toughness from others, the inner core can get badly injured: this builds up its own pressure, and when that is too much- the person breaks. There may be frequent illnesses, chronic conditions, ill-temper, impatience, taunting, bullying, withdrawing from people when things get too hot to handle. Disdaining weakness, how would the tough person view his/ her own inner vulnerability, so carefully hidden from the world, but which leaks out to their own consciousness? How can there be self-esteem and self-love in this situation? Can there be full self-defense with this undermining of oneself? How fight an enemy when it resides within?

The strong person does not have such a well-defined and separate inner and outer layer; the layers meld into each other, act together cooperatively. S/he allows herself or himself to be pliant outside while knowing there is a limit beyond which the world will be not be allowed to push. There is resilience, an elasticity, which is lacking in a tough person. The strong person handles problems by being flexible in the way of viewing them. If there is a problem in a relationship, the strong person is willing to see the other side, not scared to find a problem within. Not viewing the world as a dichotomy of strong-weak, or the strong person can be gentle about his/her own vulnerabilities. S/he can honor herself/himself and thus truly look after her or his own interests. There is not such a reason to look for enemies when so much of the world outside is peopled by people who help and can be helped.

Thinking of the tree in the storm, the old oak tree was tough- it could withstand the storm without bending; but a prolonged pressure cracked it. An all-or-nothing phenomenon. The smaller oak tree, bending with every strong gust, one with it, withstood its damaging effects. Not only did it not withstand the storm, it became one with it- the storm transformed to music for the tree to dance to. This is alchemy in action- the inner nature of each tree changed the outer nature of the wind. To one, it was a storm; to the other, the strong winds were a chance to dance!

Heat from fire can cook the food
Or burn if we’re not careful
What ultimately happens is up to us
We can use it or be used

Do we choose to be strong for a while
Till the biggest storm is before us?
Or pliantly live out each storm
Turn around the big ones to benefit us?

© Meenakshi Suri 30 Jan 2003
Background by © Yashodhara Suri 1 Feb 2003

It is no coincidence that this piece was written on this date- the 55th anniversary of the day that one of the strongest men who ever lived- Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – became for all time Mahatma Gandhi.

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