One Sunday, I cradled my sleeping newborn on my lap while in a group discussion with about fifty men aged 18 on up. The topic was Parenting. As you might imagine, opinions on the subject were plentiful. Generally, the number of comments shared by a person was inversely proportional to their age. I consider it blessed luck that I happened to be sitting next to a wise, old man from our neighborhood. At the time, his age was a bit more than double mine. He and his wife had raised 15 or so children. If for nothing else, church is valuable for providing opportunities to talk with people like him.
As the meeting went on, many ideas were shared and I asked a question or two, all while trying to keep my baby asleep. At one point, the old man at my side leaned over and, respectfully noting the numerous opinions of the group, quietly paraphrased Thoreau: “For every thousand men hacking at the branches, there’s only one striking at the root.”1
A similar visual from the scriptures describes the “wisdom” of the world as a large building filled with luxuriously-dressed people mocking those outside of it. The building stands “as it were in the air” which I’ve often thought means that it has no foundation.
I’ve noticed in my life, in others’ lives, in society and in government the tendency to hack the branches instead of the root. Why is it so easy to get stuck hacking branches instead of striking the root? What is so enticing about a nice building that people are willing to build it even without a strong foundation? I’m still thinking about it, but I’ll write down a few ideas here:
The branches are the part of the tree you can see. Chopping a few off is easy to do, point at, then pose for a photo op for your constituents.
“See all the branches I cut down? Vote for me!”
We might not chop off branches to be seen by others, but maybe seeing limbs fall from the tree gives us quick satisfaction that we’re “making progress” when in reality, we’re delaying progress.
Sometimes problems need immediate attention and hacking at the branches is the right thing to do. At first. So we (or government or business) hire some workers to clean up the branches. Now someone’s livelihood depends on there being branches to prune. They might fight (intentionally or subconsciously) to keep the problematic tree alive just so they have work.
Digging out a root is grueling work. It’s not always easy to see progress. Your tools might break. You’ll probably get muddy. You might unearth more problems as you go. It’s easy to get tired and want to give up.
Perhaps our view of the branches obscures any ideas for tackling the root. We fail to even consider what the root of the problem is, let alone hack at it.
Society’s problems won’t be solved by addressing only the symptoms. Nor, I realize, will anything be solved by simply writing solution-less blog posts. But maybe these thoughts are helpful in your own circle of influence. Are you cutting down any branches today?
- My friend, who has since passed away, then gave some good advice which I hope I always remember. One main point was to “Have faith. Keep doing the good things you know you should do and it will work out.” Another was to remember that we can only “deal from our side of the table.” You can’t ultimately force your kids to be a certain way or think on their behalf.