People are Trees, Not Timelines

It was 2011.  I suppose that wasn’t so long ago, really, but it feels like forever now.

I was sitting in the basement of a local Unitarian Universalist Church, surrounded by regular attendees. I hadn’t been to any kind of worship in at least a decade, and felt like a fetus surrounded by middle aged church goers. I watched as the Minister passed around markers, telling us to “draw our spiritual journey.”

(I realize this may seem strange, but trust me–it’s business as usual at the UU.)

I drew and labeled tentatively across the page. When we finished, I partnered up with the woman across from me to go over the designs.  She showed off her intricate, curving  pathway–marriage, born again Christianity, yoga, Wicca, kids.  It was a beautiful timeline, and I smiled back at her story as she scanned my drawing curiously.

I hadn’t drawn a timeline.

I had drawn a tree.

I don't actually have original tree drawing, so I ran outside and took this blurry picture. Just for you. You're welcome.
I don’t actually have original tree drawing, so I ran outside and took this blurry picture. Just for you. You’re welcome.

A group show-and-tell circled around the room.  One by one, everyone began revealing their timeline. Curves, corners, arrows, paths, this-thus-that. Even the Minister illustrated his journey with thick, chronological lines.

And there I was, with my frizzy short hair and limited life experience, clutching an image of twisted branches while everyone poured out their major life events.

On some level, it probably had to do with my age.  When the Minister said “spiritual journey,” all my young mind could think of were moments and relationships, good meals and great ideas, quiet places and loud families. These were the things that made God seem just a liiiittle closer than usual.  So I drew roots. Branches to represent friendships, leaves to represent moments.  Some of the leaves were falling off of their perch; others were growing flowers. Text and little hearts explained (or refused to explain) what it all meant.

Basically, it was hyper-symbolic. It was not so simple –> as –> this.

And maybe it was a little strange, maybe it wasn’t quite what the Minister was looking for, but…I was proud of my tree. I liked the openness.   There were “big life” events on the tree, of course, markers of birth/death/love/war.  But there were other things, too.  The tree represented my life as a work-in-progress, with multiple facets. One big, bright leaf reflected a long, peaceful silence I shared with a close friend. Another represented the first time I got absolutely engrossed watching a play.

The tree let those things matter.

Looking back, my favourite thing about the tree is that it was strong, but not rigid.  It was alive. Parts could grow, or break and fall right off, and it would all be natural. As a young person, that was important. I think it might stay important as I get older.

(It’s also possible that I’m just kind of a hippie. Feel free to raise an eyebrow.)

By nature, timelines present our memory and our identity as rigid. They present our lives as one big story, instead of millions of imperfect experiences. I don’t know if that’s fair.  I don’t think we should restrict our identity to the things that “count” as milestones.  We aren’t necessarily tragic heroes with a beginning-middle-end. Nor are we self-aware folks on a direct journey through life.  “That was a really hard time in my life,” or “That was the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Too simple. That’s just too simple. We aren’t timelines. We can’t stop at chronology. I don’t want to compartmentalize your life, or my life, not like that.

Yes, yes, I realize all this might sound odd coming from a History student.

Let me be clear: Timelining is a great way to establish context.  It’s not a crime to treat events as “things that took place,” or even to consider people as empty, reactive vessels that “things happened to” at first.  I absolutely devour the nothing-but-chronological unfolding of the world through the lens of time.

But I also don’t, and can’t, stop there.

Even in History, reality often comes in trees. Family trees, for example. Essay outlines. Complex international relations maps.

Family tree with fingerprints from the extended fam. Can't get much more meaningful than that!
A family tree from our last reunion, with fingerprints from the extended fam. See? Trees are awesome.

We have to branch out. Timelines are great at telling base, simple stories…but they’re not so great at telling the whole truth.

And when it comes to our own identity, our own History, we deserve the Truth.  We deserve to represent ourselves as more than a timeline–more than what happens to us, and certainly more than a few life events that people have decided are “important.”

Maybe, just maybe, we could use the wisdom of trees to start looking at that.

(I know, I know. Hippie alert, part two. You can raise your other eyebrow.)

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2 thoughts on “People are Trees, Not Timelines

  1. I like the tree idea – because of numerous doctor visits, I’ve made a timeline of major life events to save consulting time – funnily, it also mirrors my biggest ‘spiritual ah-hah’s’ as well, but most people who view it just hone in on the ‘trauma’ and not the ‘growth’! 😀 – So perhaps I’ll draw a tree and see what happens…LOL

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