- Relationships end.
- Careers change.
- Hopes and dreams and plans do not always work out.
Our instinct can be to try to hold onto these things, with our thoughts, with our hearts, with our actions, well past the time when we should have healed and moved forward. I have been thinking a lot about that. And trees. And leaves.
You see when it is autumn here in Ohio I love to watch the leaves change color and fall to the ground. It is absolutely beautiful to go for a bike ride along the Cuyahoga Valley towpath surrounded by a world of reds and oranges and yellows. Unfortunately that also means raking up several dozen bags of leaves in my yard from all of my trees, but that’s a small price to pay for the crisp air and colorful canvas of the fall.
As I was considering the trees and leaves, I realized how much autumn has to do with this problem of letting go. The trees can teach us a lot about ourselves and what we need to do. Here’s what I mean…
Let’s say I am a tree. And you are a tree. We are all trees.
Our leaves are the many different aspects of our lives. Our spouses or loved ones. Our friends. Our coworkers. Our jobs, hobbies, interests, hopes, dreams, passions. The things we pour ourselves into, and often define ourselves by.
But from time to time the seasons change and winter approaches. This happens for trees every year. We as people also have winters in our lives.
I don't know what it is for you, but I am sure you have faced many winters in your life. Some of mine have come in the form of crucial relationships that ended through death or divorce. Another from the end of a career that was an integral part of my identity. All left me blindsided, hurt, angry, and confused.
When the fall and winter come for a tree, what happens? Of course we all know they lose their leaves. But why do they lose their leaves? Take a moment and think about that.
Here is where a common misunderstanding often comes in. If you ask most people why a tree loses its leaves in the fall, you will probably get an answer that is only partially correct. They may say something about the days getting shorter, so there is less sunlight, so the leaves can’t make enough energy through photosynthesis, so the leaves die, and then finally after they have died they fall off of the tree.
Actually that is not true. Leave don’t fall. They get pushed.
You see only the first part of that explanation is correct. The days do get shorter, temperatures do drop, there is less sunlight, and leaves are unable to make as much energy. This also leads to the leaves changing colors as the lack of photosynthesis allows other dormant colors in the leaf to show through. But that’s where the explanation goes off the tracks. The leaves do not die and just fall off the tree.
Think about this… Have you ever cut a branch off of a tree that was covered with leaves? Or maybe came across one on the ground that broke off during a storm? What did you notice about the leaves? If the branch lays on the ground for long enough, the leaves will most certainly become brown and withered and dead. However, they will not have fallen off. Instead the leaves will still be clinging to the branch just as tight as when they were alive. Why is this?
Well here’s what really happens with trees and leaves…
When a leaf is first grown, the tree also creates a special row of cells between the leaf and the tree called the abscission layer (same root as the word “scissors”). When the autumn brings changes to the leaf (lack of sunlight, colder temperatures, etc.) the cells in the abscission layer begin to extend and separate from each other. You can’t see this with the naked eye, but a microscope will show this clearly. These cells are just like a zipper being unzipped. The tree literally uses the abscission layer to cut the leaf away from the tree while the leaf is still alive. When the leaf falls, it is because the tree cut it loose and let it go.
Maybe we shouldn’t call this time of the year “the fall” but instead call it “the push”.
But why does a tree do this? Why does it let go of its leaves? There are actually many reasons why this is the best things for the tree to do:
- First, leaves contain water, which is fine during the warmer months, but would actually freeze in the winter, expanding and destroying the cells of the leaves.
- Next, even though the leaves usually make energy for the tree, in the winter they can no longer do so. Instead the leaves would actually use up valuable energy to be maintained, during a season when the tree needs all of the energy it has left to survive itself.
- Also, many leaves are beginning to show wear and tear by the end of the year, from wind and bugs and disease.
- Finally, winter brings snow and ice. While rain may run off a leaf in the summer, snow and ice will cling to the leaves in the winter, weighing them down so much that the branches will crack and break, and the tree itself will be destroyed.
When the autumn comes and winter is approaching, a tree lets go of it leaves for its own survival, with the hope that it will live through the winter and have a chance for new life in the spring.
And just like a tree, there are times in our lives when we need to let go. Let go of a relationship. A job. A dream. Memories. Plans. Unforgiveness. Hurt. Anger. Regret. Guilt.
Holding onto these things occupies our thoughts, consumes our energy, weighs us down, threatens to bend and break and destroy us.
Sometimes we need to let go. To find out who we are at our core. To tend to ourselves. To hope that we too will survive the winter and have a chance for new life in the spring.
It doesn’t mean you are a loser. It doesn’t mean you are a quitter. It doesn’t mean you are a failure.
It means you accept that something has come to an end, and you are ready to move forward, to heal, to recover. And eventually the winter will end, and the sun will shine, and you will have the chance to regrow. New relationships, new dreams, new plans, a new life.
It's ok to let go.