Saturday, December 30, 2023

Finding the right metaphor

The most important thing about humans is our language. Other species communicate, of course, and many are much stronger or have other physical attributes that make them physiologically superior to humans. However, as far as we know, we’re the only species on earth that is defined by the depth and breadth of its ability to communicate. No wonder it can be so difficult to find the perfect words to define ourselves and the essence of who we are as a person and our experience of life. Sometimes, though, words just pop into our heads in just the right order and at just the right moment. That happened to me yesterday.

Over the past four years, I’ve tried to explain the realities of grief, of being a gay widower, and how all of that changes us, even permanently. The one thing that eluded me was finding the right metaphor to help people grasp what Nigel and I were together, and so, why it’s been such a struggle for me to redefine myself. I think I may have stumbled into one that may help.

Nigel and were like two trees planted near each other. Not seedlings or young saplings, but more mature trees, the sort that it takes a digger to dig the hole and to lift the tree into it. As the trees slowly become established in their new home side-by-side, they begin to help each other, one sheltering the other from the wind as the direction of the gusts changes, the leaves of each cooling the air around them so the water in the soil doesn’t evaporate as quickly.

Over time, the trees grow bigger and stronger, side-by-side, their branches and roots becoming entwined with each other. Eventually, this makes it difficult to tell where one tree ends and the other starts.

Then, one of the trees gets a disease, weakens, and dies. Its trunk breaks at the soll line, and it falls over, separating the two trees’ branches. The remaining tree now stands alone, but its roots! Its roots are still entwined with the roots of its now-gone companion tree. Only the one tree is still anchored by those roots, only one is still drawing life where once two did, but the fact of the entwined roots remains.

Over time, the lost companion’s roots will be absorbed by the soil, but that doesn’t change the surviving tree’s knowledge and memory of how once two trees were so thoroughly entwined with each other, both visibly with their branches, and out of sight, below ground. And as the former companion’s roots eventually disappear, they nourish the roots of the surviving tree, until one day it, too, reaches its end.

This metaphor, I think, describes the core of what happens to us when a spouse/partner dies: The person with whom our life was so completely entwined is gone, but the deep connections remain out of sight, still providing comfort to the survivor, and nourishing its continued growth. At the same time, learning to live and thrive without the visible connection, like the entwined trees’ branches, is a huge challenge for the survivor. Others looking on know the visible connection is gone, but they know nothing about the invisible connections that still remain, still unseen.

The reason that this metaphor works for me is that we’re all familiar with the idea of trees being big, strong, and enduring, that storms or disease may take out nearby trees, but others endure. People who’ve lost a spouse/partner similarly manage to endure, most of them, even though at first they can’t work out how to do so with their companion’s life no longer interwoven with their own. But the roots of their relationship and life together provide the stability they need when they need it the most, and continues to nurture them as they move forward in their own life. Maybe it could help outside observers to understand what a widow/er goes through.

I’ve struggled to understand why it’s so hard to adjust to a suddenly solo life, and over the past couple years in particular that’s led me to read a lot about grief and recovery. This tree metaphor popped into my head as I read the latest book I picked up—even though at that point the author wasn’t talking about anything even remotely related to forestry or botany. I’ll eventually talk about the insights I’ve gained from all that study, however, I have several books at various stages of progress (as is usual for me). Also, it takes me a long time because I’m a slow reader, something I wrote about way back in 2009. Right now, though, the important thing is that all this study I’ve been doing has been helpful, and not just because it caused a metaphor to pop into my head.

Sometimes, words just pop into our heads in just the right order and at just the right moment. That happened to me yesterday, and maybe more will pop into my head in the future. Metaphorically speaking, of course.


Roger Owen Green said...

That makes very good sense!

Arthur Schenck said...

Thanks—it sure took me long enough to come up with it!