Owning our Uniqueness

A tree gives glory to God first of all by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be, it is imitating an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.

The more it is like itself, the more it is like Him. If it tried to be like something else which it was never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore it would give Him less glory.

No two trees are alike. And their individuality is no imperfection.

– Thomas Merton

“Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.”

Gautama Buddha

“A mystic is not a certain type of person. Rather, each of us is a certain type of mystic.”

– Brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB (paraphrase)


It is warm and breezy today and I am enjoying the sounds of birdsong as I sit typing by the sunroom. I see the late afternoon sun shining through the leaves of the Christmas cactuses, making their leaves translucent. In the corner, there’s a new ginger plant of some type, with variegated green and white leaves glowing in the sunshine. Across the sunroom and currently in the shade, the coffee tree I’ve had since March of 2008 is looking a little droopy. Is it a lack of water? Or is it that its branches are getting weighed down by dozens of young coffee cherries?

My wife Claire counted well over 30 individual plants in the sunroom the other day and each one of them is different. Some of the differences are easy to manage. They need different fertilizers, so we have two jugs of water, one for the cacti and succulents and one for the others. The coffee tree is at least eight feet tall and requires lots of water, while some of the succulents need to be watered only occasionally. They have different soil needs, different growth rates. Each gives us joy in its own way. There is the annual blooming of the coffee tree with its heavenly, sweet-smelling flowers. There is the annual blooming of the Christmas cactuses at a time that changes slightly every year according to an internal clock that I cannot read.

While I might be frustrated by how difficult some of the plants are to care for, I have never judged them for being the way they are. I don’t think that my ten year old cactus should be as tall as the coffee tree. And I don’t expect it to suddenly start bearing fruit! But when it comes to myself, my behavior and my needs, I am suddenly not as generous.

Humans are a lot more complex than plants. We have sophisticated minds and free will that give us opportunities for conscious choices that plants don’t have. That’s where applying Merton’s words to our human lives gets tricky. You might know that Thomas Merton was the one who coined the term “false self,” a word that Thomas Keating used throughout his books on Centering Prayer. While I have some issues with the idea of a false self (perhaps for another essay on another day) there is no question that we humans are not always living in alignment with our true selves. So perhaps some frustration with oneself is warranted at times? Particularly when we know we’re not living from our deepest center, our truest self?

Perhaps this is a fantasy, but what if we could truly accept ourselves as we are, in all our imperfection and complexity? In all our brokenness and glory? If we could declare a ceasefire between the warring parts of ourselves it would free up energy so it could flow into our flourishing as the unique being each of us is.  It would end the internal war between our parts. It would lay a basis for true peace of mind and a life lived at ease within oneself. It seems worth trying. Don’t you think?

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