All Commentary
Monday, March 1, 2004

Watering the Tree

Doting Too Much on the Weak Creates Helplessness

Though my father is approaching 80 and is no longer able to do as much outdoors, a legacy of his retirement years is the orchard behind my childhood home. After my dad ended his trucking career, he took to heart an activity I would not previously have supposed to be of interest to him. His newfound hobby involved selecting a wide variety of fruit trees and nurturing them to maturity.

My dad carefully sifted through the various catalogs he received, trying to determine what mix of saplings he wanted to purchase. While I was away at graduate school and, later, working, he planted a number of different types of trees: apples of various flavors; persimmons suitable to midwestern winters; even Asian pears. Each spring and summer he sprayed the growing crop to ward off the blights and pests that love to infest what people desire to consume.

Spring in Iowa is often quite wet. (Anyone who remembers the Great Flood of ’93 can attest to that.) But as many in similar climates pronounce with grave wisdom, wait a day or two and the weather will change. One summer after my father had purchased a new apple tree, the plentiful rain that visited earlier in the season vanished into the nether world. Wherever that precipitation fell, it did not fall on central Iowa.

Not wanting to see his investment or his time go to waste, my dad set up the drip hose around the latest addition to his horticultural flock. With the extra attention he devoted to the tree, he hoped it would survive long enough to produce fruit. As the mini-drought progressed, the lush grass surrounding the trees faded and dried. Undeterred, the newbie apple continued to sprout new leaves and retain its verdant color.

All appeared to be going well.

As is commonplace in the wide plains of tornado country, a thunderstorm mounded high one night. The dry spell suffered a modest break with the arrival of lightning and rain and wind. While any rain was welcomed, the amount that reached the ground barely made a dent in the deficit.

The morning after the blow, my dad went out to inspect the orchard. To his considerable dismay, the young tree he had lavished such effort on had tumbled to the ground, its foliage already shriveling on the branches.

Only after observing the flattened tree stretched out in the dormant grass, its long, stringy roots dripping clumps of dirt, did my father realize his mistake. He had kept the drip hose delivering a constant supply of life-sustaining water to help the delicate plant settle into its new abode, a transition that many plants do not handle well. In doing so, he had, indeed, assisted the tree in retaining its leaves and growing throughout its young existence.

But with that steady drip-drip of plentiful water nourishing it, the apple tree had extended its roots horizontally to follow the easy path of the water spreading through the topsoil. The other trees — some not much larger than the latest arrival — had not been quite so pampered and protected from the drought afflicting Iowa that summer. While they, too, had experienced the same fierce winds as the tree selected for special notice, they had, without exception, survived the strong gusts whipping their branches and straining their trunks.

Since they had never experienced the same caretaking as the youngster, the other fruit trees had driven their roots down, not out, until they reached the deeper levels of moisture that had burned out of the shallower dirt. Some of their leaves had indeed suffered as a result of their redirected efforts. Much of their fruit, too, proved to be smaller and less lush. But they had withstood the stresses of the storm and survived to the dawn, ruffled by the unpleasant conditions, yes, but literally unbowed.

Would that more parents and politicians and all the rest learn the lessons of this unfortunate set of circumstances and alter their behavior while there is yet time.

The impulse to shelter that which we hold dear is natural enough. Most of us gain no pleasure witnessing the hardships of those we love. Beyond that, the afflictions of strangers often remind us that misery and bad times may visit any of us. The future is a book we can never read until we hold its covers in our hands.

The Wish to Help

Parents want to spare their children real and imagined troubles. Compassionate people hear stories of heartbreak and empathetically wish to assist—somehow—those enduring life’s woes. Politicians—some at least—truly believe they can and should help the needy and the unfortunate. But often the best thing such well-intentioned folks can do for those struggling with life’s challenges is to refrain from doing so.

While of course context is critical in reaching a proper decision not to act, many parents do their offspring no favors by insisting on keeping the world at bay. Whether the negative event is the teasing and name-calling endemic to childhood; exposure to such supposed wickedness as the word “gun,” let alone the real objects; taking tumbles on bikes; climbing tall trees; watching the evening news; grieving over a dead pet; reading upsetting books or viewing challenging movies, children surrounded by metaphorical walls will be at a loss when those artificial barriers are breached, as they inevitably will be.

The intellectual and emotional foundations required to exist in the world must—if a person is to succeed as a whole and undamaged individual—come from within. Parents who do not allow—let alone encourage—their children to send roots wandering through the dry soil toward more secure resources are actually damaging their ability to weather and withstand the unpredictable.

Citizens and politicians who seek to soften the problems associated with foolish, ignorant, or regrettable choices and actions are, likewise, only contributing to the potential destruction of those they hope to support. At best, those efforts weaken people’s ability to discover how to handle bad consequences.

No. Suffering is not noble. Suffering is merely a fact of life that must be acknowledged and dealt with. Most of us would decry the abrupt thrusting of zoo-raised animals into the wilderness to fend for themselves. People deserve at least as much consideration.

Though some would call those of us who hold this philosophy “selfish” or meanspirited or thoughtless or any of the other terms designed to intimidate us into acceding to their plans for cradle-to-grave care, the very behavior they condemn reflects our respect for the lives, the minds, the dignity of our fellow human beings.

Whether in the form of well-meaning laws or regulations, of generous loans or grants, or of the million and one legal mandates that endeavor to end hurtful discrimination or hatred or racism, doting too much on the “weak,” catering too much to the “helpless,” or favoring too much those viewed as “victims” will accomplish little other than to create people who are weak or helpless or victims.

There is a time to water that tree.

And there is a time simply to walk away.