Trash Trees and Labels


"Trash trees." That's the name that many Marylanders call these types of maple trees. While large, stately, and native to the area, they regularly drop their dead branches. Cleaning up their litter is a constant chore. It reminds me of being a parent, but I can't withhold allowance as incentive to stop messing up the place.

While I was cleaning up the fallen branches for the 100th time I had a sudden revelation. I save every branch that I pick up because it's perfect kindling for my wood stove and fire pit. The wood stove, in particular, is the primary source of heat for my house all winter long, and needs kindling every morning to get it restarted after the embers have died down overnight. I need these dead branches. If I didn't get them from this "trash tree" right in my own back yard I'd have to find them elsewhere, a much less convenient task. I realized that these dead branches aren't trash but, in fact, gifts. And yes, I know that a book about that has already been written...

This got me to thinking about the labels we place on things, other people, and ourselves. Fortunately the tree doesn't care what you call it. Like some teenagers, it will continue to spew its trash all over the place as if it didn't hear you. But what about people?

In my first year of residency I was asked by my director what my goal for the three years was. I replied, "I don't want to be weak." Even in a profession that is supportive, caring, comforting, and nurturing to patients, any show of vulnerability by physicians is considered weakness. Being called weak is like wearing a scarlet letter. Showing this "negative" side of humanity is considered frailty and is readily ridiculed. I did not want this label. So I put on my big girl panties, threw on my heavy armor, grabbed my sword and shield, and prepared to fight. Forever.

The problem is that this isn't sustainable.

It turns out that I, like you, am flawed. While I'd like to pretend that I am in charge of my own destiny, I am regularly reminded by the universe that I'm not in control. I make mistakes. I get tired. I get cranky. I get sick. Wearing my armor, though, made everything worse. It was so heavy! Eventually I had to take it off. I needed to share my fears and faults with others even though the label of "weak" was overwhelming.

It should not have come as a surprise to find out that letting my guard down made my spirit lighter. I have embraced my vulnerability, rejected my shame, and decided to expose my soft underbelly to the world (figuratively speaking). I'm human, with human fallibilities, and that's OK. I have given up pretending to myself and to others that I have most things under control. I've never had control.

I decided to let go.

Then something miraculous happened.

My relationships are becoming stronger, deeper, and more meaningful. I have reconnected with long-lost friends and made many new ones. I am beginning to learn to love with abandon. I now curiously explore where the current takes me in this river we call life. I am taken aback by the beauty and grace of mundane things (like dead tree branches) and my life is richer for it. What was once a shameful label is now a gift.

My wish for you is that you, too, find your gifts within.

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