I have been marveling at my potted Norfolk pine, which I relocate outdoors from my sunroom each summer. I was forgetful this year, and placed it on my unshaded deck without remembering that it needs a gentle transition to the sizzling Colorado sun.
Before I realized my error nearly two days later — a plodding pace, even for my turtle-like cognition — it was scalded. The soft needles had lost their verdant silkiness and the tips of the branches were withering.
I was crestfallen by my carelessness. I’m fond of this little pine with its supple branches; decorated with a strand of tiny multi-colored lights, it makes a humbly charming Christmas tree.
But the damage was done. I moved it to a sheltered location where it would receive less direct sun. And waited.
Six weeks later, the brittle brown tips are giving way to feathery fingers of new growth, and the tree has lost its sickly chartreuse pallor. Improbably, it has survived my dumbness.
I’m always gratified and surprised when this happens, not just to me, but to any of us. We humans are natural experts in doing harm, often due to ignorance, sometimes due to carelessness or laziness and sometimes – more often than we admit – due to selfishness. The only wonder is that we so often emotionally survive our own and each other’s dumbness, and that other living things so often survive the lot of us.
I can’t speak for the latter, having never within memory been other than human. The resilience of the natural world is remarkable, able to weather much — though certainly not all — of human stupidity.
I know a lot about the former, though, about the needless harm that passes between people: I’ve given and received it. Human relationships falter — and sometimes end — if we are dumb enough often enough with each other.
Yet so much depends not on the inevitable damage we do ourselves and others, but on our response to it. Human bonds can be remarkably resilient, but only if each person has enough self-awareness to recognize the harm she does, to feel it in her bones. And then, the humility and accountability to take any necessary remedial action and the resolve to avoid repeats.
The first step is at once the most difficult and most important — and also most frequently the point of failure. Here’s Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chodron:
We all know people who can’t — or won’t — look unflinchingly at the harm they do; maybe we’ve been them. The emotional landscape of their lives is littered with superficial, deformed and broken bonds. Clueless — or willful — dumbness is insidious, fragmenting the self and corroding relationships.
We need each other, more than we know: to be braver than that, to be better than that. If we are to help each other fulfill the rich potential of our challenging human lives, we must feel in ourselves — and sense in one another — a determined will toward wisdom, a deep yearning to experience what it means to live with love and integrity.
Always, we are called to look within, to see clearly the harm we do, not that we may judge ourselves harshly, but that we may wholeheartedly answer the desire of our spirits for wholeness. When we instead turn away – when we refuse to take responsibility for our own dumbness — we fail ourselves but also each other.
I think of that when I look at my Norfolk pine, at this tender little tree once injured by my carelessness and now restored by something that, in the human world, would pass for courage, and by some stubborn will to be restored to the fullness of life.
May we all be as forthright and resilient in our response to harm: Again and again, may we look within, and then earnestly, patiently, to each other, heart to wounded heart. Acknowledging to ourselves — and then surviving, with each other — our dumbness.