The Lesson of the Lodgepole Pines

Terry Lieb Coping with Adversity, Facing Fear, Mindfulness 1 Comment

During a recent trip to Glacier National Park, Rita and I took one of the most amazing and awesome drives we have ever experienced. Along the road we saw several areas that had been destroyed by fire, great swaths of charred black pines, dead and yet fighting to stay upright. On closer observation, you could see thousands of little lodgepole pines in various levels of growth. The extreme contrast of the vibrant electric green against the charred black landscape made for a dramatic sight.

My initial thought when I viewed the first area, just a few acres, was that it may have been an intentional burn and that small trees had been planted.  But then we came across a burned-out area that was literally as far as you could see and quickly realized it was extremely unlikely for all of this new growth to be plant seedlings. I became intrigued—Rita would say somewhat obsessed!—with the lodgepole pines and how they came back from the devastation of fire.

During a hike through one of these burned-out areas I came across a ranger attempting to enforce a “no swimming” rule in a remote area of the park. I eagerly pounced on her with my list of questions regarding fire and the pine trees. She produced a “serotinous” cone from her pack and explained that in parts of the country where fast-moving fires happen frequently, some pine species have developed thick, rather hard cones that are totally glued shut with a very resilient resin. These cones can hang on the pine trees for years, long after the well-protected seeds have matured. Then suddenly, when an intense fires rages through the area, the cones open up, freeing the seeds which are then scattered by both gravity and wind onto the surrounding ground.

I seem to see the world in analogies and immediately began to reflect on my own life journey and many of my patients and friends. I have noticed that trauma—like the intense heat of fire—often melts away layers of habit, denial, inertia, and various forms of addiction that have built up around us and kept us stuck. The “shake-up” of trauma has the potential to break down our walls and defenses, move us to higher levels of vulnerability, and free up a seed of growth and transformation.

This has certainly been the case in my own life. In 2010, my 37-year marriage was rock solid and my career was coasting along smoothly. I had been the executive director for a faith-based counseling center for over 30 years, loved what I did, and looked forward to each new day. I felt I had found my vocation and was able to use my gifts and experience to make a difference. I was convinced I would be there for many more years.

Then came the cancer diagnosis. The intense conversations it spurred with Rita catapulted our already-strong marriage to a level I didn’t even know existed. It was Rita’s courage, faith, unconditional love that became the foundation for our shared commitment to not only survive this crisis but allow this journey to transform us as individuals and as a couple, come hell or high water.

One unexpected outcome of this decision was that it raised the possibility of my taking an early retirement. It was frightening for me to consider leaving a position in which I felt very secure and capable, and which accorded me significant ego strokes besides. But somehow the cancerous fire in my life began to melt the resin and nudge me to let go of what I had grown accustomed to and step into the unknown possibilities that might be ahead. After much soul searching, I took the plunge, the aftermath of which is spawning growth in so many different areas of my life it remains impossible to comprehend. Among other things, I’ve been able to travel, spend more time with family and friends, and explore brand-new challenges that I never would have expected, including writing this blog!

However, as valuable as this experience was for me, I know that trauma doesn’t always have a positive impact. Some of my clients have been swept under by the crises in their lives, while others not only survive, but thrive. So what makes the difference? After watching countless individuals struggle to cope with, move past, and heal from trauma in their lives, I have seen a pattern in those who are overcome and those who overcome.

Going back to the lodgepole pine analogy, when fire releases the seed, whether or not it will sprout is determined by the soil it falls upon. So too with us. Although we can’t control when the crisis will show up, how bad or difficult it may be, we do have significant influence whether it will fall on rich fertile transformative soil or barren rocky lifeless soil.

I have come to believe that one of the best ways to increase the fertility of our soil is to begin practicing reframing the small disappointments and mini crises we face every day. As I’ve come to realize and share with many of my patients, it takes daily practice of this positive reframing approach if we stand a chance with the big, life-altering traumas that shake us to our foundations. But by experiencing the outcomes of this mindset—the growth and learning that come through pain and struggle—over and over again day after day we can begin to trust the process because we’ve experienced firsthand the fruit it bears. Then, with our soil tilled and prepared, we’ll be ready when the devastating fires show up!

Questions for Deepening Your Faith Journey

Are you open to the potential for transformative growth and learning to happen in the midst of the pain and struggle? It seems more natural for some folks to embrace this concept than for others. Where do you fall on the continuum?

Have you ever witnessed this concept transforming a person you knew well?

Do you apply this reframing approach to the small struggles and disappointments of daily life? What stands in the way?

Can you recall a life situation where you didn’t consciously apply this approach but you did experience growth and learning? What prompted the growth and learning?

How could you employ this concept to enhance and enrich your life?

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David Werley
David Werley
April 12, 2019 3:56 pm

Linda and I just spent time reading together this blog about the lodgepole. Wow! What an awesome analogy and how helpfully you apply and give opportunity to allow seeds of potential, new life to fall into the soil of our own lives. I don’t know if you remember, but perhaps 40 years ago, you and and I engagerd in a discussion about preaching. You were beginning to get more and more requests, including from me, to accept opportunities to preach. I remember suggesting that one of the reasons for your many requests to share in the preaching task, was your… Read more »