This past Monday I had a rare opportunity: I returned to Miller Woods, part of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, where I worked summers during college. Years ago I was part of a team studying the effects of controlled burns on the Miller Woods ecosystem, which would naturally have forest fires rather frequently if there weren’t people living there to stop them. This study helped build guidelines for management of fire-dependent ecosystems in public lands around the country, and also gave me an opportunity to get to know many of the plants and animals close to my hometown.
When I returned this week, I was tagging along with a first grade class, taught by one of my best friends. The kids were basically over the moon to be out exploring the woods: one of them actually said, “I’ve never seen this many trees before!”
These children come from a heavily industrial part of Northwest Indiana that’s sort of like the inner city without the rest of the city. Many of them have witnessed violence, some have lost parents; some have experienced neglect and/or abuse. Within this particular group of six-year-old children, many have already been labeled by authority figures as “trouble makers” (and some do, as a matter of fact, cause trouble for the students and adults around them).
But on that field trip I (naturally) kept thinking of the Five Phases, and nature versus nurture. How much is a person’s Five Phase nature shrouded by dire circumstances so early in life? Some schools of thought say that your Five Phase nature is determined by your first traumatic experience.
What I observed accompanying these kids in Miller Woods opened my eyes and mind a bit. Despite the challenges these kids have already faced, they were all still just curious, rambunctious explorers.
Childhood is the Wood phase of life: growing, expanding, and reaching toward our potential. By its nature Wood keeps striving, even in the face of adversity- sometimes even more so when faced with challenge and hardship. Each one of these little kids is growing just like the trees they were so excited to see. And they’ll keep growing and reaching for the light.
Years from now, when some of them are tall and strong, it may be difficult to see that constricted surroundings and pruning by outside forces were contributing factors leading others to grow into stunted, gnarled versions of who they could’ve been.
And those kids aren’t the only ones experiencing adversity. Unfortunately, abuse and neglect happen in every school district. Some kids go hungry in even the most affluent districts, and an abused kid won’t feel less alone just because his house is bigger or his shoes newer.
Even those of use who led relatively happy, healthy childhoods rarely grow to fulfill our true potential.
So what’s the point, Debbie Downer? Well, for myself, I find it difficult to deal with adults who behave in unkind or otherwise twisted ways. I see that gnarled old tree and not the story of the little sapling striving toward the light.
But if I can force myself to think of the precocious six-year-old within the mess, while I may not like the person in front of me, I do gain some perspective.
As adults we still have that Wood Phase, but we usually have more control over our lives than a six-year-old. With some creativity I can often find ways to respond to negative situations and people that help me grow into a stronger, truer version of myself rather than twisting or breaking.