A brief meditation on trees, chance (and politics)

April 8, 2018 GMT

On the hillside where I live stand two blue spruce, about 20 feet apart. They were planted 30 years ago on the same day by the original owners of this property. These trees are but a short distance from our house, visible from the living room window. And I contemplate them again and again; they fascinate me because their history is written large in their contrasting appearance.

The easternmost tree is a big, handsome fellow. It measures 19 feet tall; at the base its lower branches extend in diameter nearly 10 feet. The conical symmetry of it from top to bottom could scarcely be more perfect—its limbs are evenly spaced and full. And its state of health is evident in the uniformly vibrant green of its needles. If you were looking for a very large Christmas evergreen and you found this one, you would scarcely believe your luck. This is a tree that has flourished in every imaginable way.

Its fellow to the west has not had the same charmed existence. This one is 14 feet tall but doesn’t look it, and its diameter at the widest point measures just over 4 feet. You’d have to call it spindly and sparse. It does not present the classical evergreen profile, for its limbs are decidedly irregular in spacing and length—some are quite stubby and partially bare of needles. Overall the color is duller and less appealing. This tree is quite alive, not in danger of dying, but you would guess it has had to work hard for its undeniably meager existence.

So, two seedmates in close proximity, with seemingly an equal start, exposed to the same weather over three decades, with no human intervention—and the disparate outcomes could scarcely be more striking. What has caused such a difference?

I’m confident I know the answer. These trees stand at a point where our hillside ground falls away sharply to the creek below, and an underlying stratum of rock has caused that abrupt transition. The first tree was planted in a spot where by chance normal soil without rock existed, and the second, as worse luck would have it, in a spot where the mixture of soil and rock heavily favored the latter. That spruce’s root system has had to struggle for every bit of moisture it could extract.

Well, nature at its most basic level isn’t fair, is it, and no one ever promised it would be. Nature is indifferent; it doesn’t care about individuals. In nature, it’s a matter of survival of the fittest—or often in individual cases, it’s not fitness, it’s just a matter of sheer luck, as my two trees illustrate. We see evidence of this in flora and fauna all around us.

And why does this example continue to intrigue me? Because I see those trees as symbolic of an aspect of the human condition, obvious enough, to be sure, but of which I need a frequent reminder: that the great differences seen in the lives of persons are often explainable not by merit or lack of it so much as by luck, by good or ill fortune, by the dominating conditions that through happenstance have been imposed.

Let me state what is obvious to any thoughtful observer. Some are born into propitious circumstances—into a nurturing family, free from want, and into a supportive social environment. They have been recipients of the best education. They have the credentials and the network connections that help them spring confidently forward. Doors have been opened for them. The odds that they will flourish are greatly enhanced. All this without undue effort on their own part. They may be no more able or deserving than many another on whom fortune has not smiled.

By contrast, others are launched poorly from dysfunctional families, pulled down by poverty, surrounded by social breakdown in gang- and drug-infested neighborhoods. They may be targets of prejudice. Without the benefits of strong education—and the support needed to avail themselves of it, their opportunities for betterment are severely compromised. They come to the plate already with two strikes against them.

Examples of lives gone awry in these and other ways are legion. Imagine yourself a refugee fleeing a genocidal regime or a civil war; you’ve lost everything and you’re stranded now on the doorstep of some unwelcoming country and an alien culture. Millions of Syrians and Myanmarese could tell you stories of this. Or imagine yourself a mother with an emaciated, starving infant in Eritrea or Somalia. “There but for the grace of God go I,” you say. Well, these people aren’t responsible for their dire plight, and God’s attitude has absolutely nothing to do with the matter. They’ve just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are victims of misfortune.

Or what of the chance occurrences of physical and mental disability, not caused by bad habits or choices, disabilities that compromise dramatically the possibility for successful achievement and full lives?

I don’t mean to over simplify. In the outcome for my spruces, there was likely one single variable—soil quality or lack of it. With humans, it’s more complicated; there are a number of variables. Sometimes those “planted in the worst of soils” succeed in spite of it—because in their character they find a degree of fierce ambition and determination that lifts them, or perhaps because they find an unlikely mentor who encourages them and inspires them to achievement, or perhaps they happen to be in just the right place and time when a rich opportunity presents itself. It can happen.

And conversely, in some cases, a person with multiple promising advantages at the outset falls short by virtue of indifference, carelessness, lack of effort, self-indulgence. In short, character deficiencies. Or maybe it was just a missing gene, an accident of heredity. It happens.

Still, undeniably, while we may contribute by our choices and actions to our successes or failures, very much of the time what happens to us is simply a matter of chance, the luck of the draw, circumstances of heredity, of birth and location over which we have had no influence whatsoever.

We do well to be reminded of these realities when we get a little too full of ourselves, a little too self-congratulatory if things are going well for us personally. How many chance variables along the way, outside our own contribution, had to fall in place for us to be thus boosted? And when we see others’ notable and apparently easy successes and are tempted by comparison to be self-critical, we need to remember all the complex chains of chance that have contributed to their outcomes. And when we see others falter and fall short, and we are tempted to judge them adversely, we need to acknowledge that capability and hard work are often under-rewarded. Get used to it: the world simply isn’t always fair.

These observations seem especially germane at the present moment in our country. They are directly relevant to our political discourse which has become so poisonously divisive. Many of our citizens speak derisively of immigrants, legal and otherwise, condemning them outright, giving little or no recognition to the adversities the latter must confront in their lives. Ditto with refugees. Muslims? Jews? Blacks? Gays? “They are the OTHER!” we hear it said. “Why didn’t they choose to be like the rest of us? We got here first. Why should we smooth their paths?” And as for the unfortunate poor among us, those desperate souls who must rely on social safety nets, well, say the complainers, “They’re lazy, irresponsible freeloaders, right! They just need to get a job!”

Apparently there are still many among us who have not absorbed the simplified lesson of my two blue spruce. So much depends on the soil you’re planted in.

As we debate practical social and economic policies, let’s not assume we are in a zero-sum game, that we’re social Darwinists contending for self-advantage. Rather, let us strive for the common good, recognizing that in an unpredictable world, we do well, with some humility, to be fair-minded and helpful to those less favored by fortune. That mindset, applied collectively, will bring us closer to realizing our national ideals.

H. Wayne Schow, a native Idahoan, is a professor of English emeritus at Idaho State University. Schow lives in Pocatello.