“A good half of the art of living is resilience.”
Alain de Botton
I’ve been thinking about olive trees recently. One morning while reading, the words ”I am like a green olive tree” jumped out to me. (Psalm 52: 8) I was immediately taken back to my grandma’s house on Thanksgiving Day. While the grown-ups were getting the food ready and delightful smells drifted through the air, I would always sneak over to the dining table and snatch a couple of olives from a bowl that was always already there, waiting for the meal to begin.
While I have good memories of sneaking olives, I realized I didn’t really know what an olive tree looked like. Have you seen one? I have become quite fascinated by them the last couple weeks. Did you know the average lifespan of an olive tree is 300-600 years but many live for over a 1000 years?
Most gardening experts will tell you that an olive live tree is relatively easy to grow. It needs space and air to allow the roots to spread. They can withstand low temperatures as well as drought. In fact, even if the above ground structure of the tree is destroyed by frost, fire, or disease, it can regenerate itself. They actually develop two root systems. In the first few years, before fruit appears, the roots grow vertically. Then as the tree settles and olives begin to appear, it starts to grow more shallow, wide spreading roots just below the surface. This helps the tree thrive in various conditions.
I have seen a 400-500 year old tree, the Angel Oak Tree, on John’s Island in South Carolina. Some dear friends told us about it. It was unbelievable. It’s the size of a small park. Branches not only growing up but down, lying on the ground and spreading out beyond what you thought was possible for a tree.
While the Angel Oak was very impressive, imagine seeing a tree that is over a 1000 years old. The oldest known olive tree is in Greece and is more than 2000 years old. There is also a 1600 year old olive tree in Croatia that still produces an abundant crop of fruit each year. Many believe that some of the olive trees that you find in the Garden of Gethsemane today are the same trees that were there when Jesus gathered at the Garden to pray. Amazing.
While the old oak I saw spread broadly across the landscape, the olive tree is different. It looks quite humble in comparison. Its trunk does reveal its age as it becomes gnarled and twisted over time. While we often think of olive branches as a symbol for peace, I wonder if an olive tree could symbolize resilience. Imagine all that an olive tree goes through to endure anywhere from 300 - 2000 years. How do they do it? Is there anything we can learn an olive tree?
Reflecting on the olive tree, we can discover at least three things that could help us grow resilience.
An olive tree needs space and time for its roots to grow and so do we. We need space and time to care for our souls.
John Eldredge observes, “We’re asking our souls to live at the speed of the smartphone and the laptop and it can’t be done.” He has created a free app, One Minute Pause. Simply taking 60 seconds to pause and “let your soul catch up to you” can be a game changer. Eldredge says, “It’s a time to release everything and everyone to God.”
You don’t have to get the app to do it. Simply stop and pause throughout the movements of your day. I have found it helps to pause before a meeting or a phone call or before the school or workday ends. In the pause, I slow down and let go of all the tasks, pressures, and worries ahead and rest in the moment. The process of letting go makes space for new good things to come your way.
Chances are, the olive tree is not the one that will be uprooted in the storm. Its roots are both deep and wide. It can respond to whatever comes its way and survive.
When I am my best self, I am adaptable, engaging life with all its challenges. In order to engage rather than react, we need to be open to seeing and understanding things in new ways. We can decide to listen and understand rather than criticize or judge. We can seek grace rather than control. We can try to be led by love rather than fear.
“Resilience,” writes Carole Pemberton, “is the capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors when faced by a life disruption or extended periods of pressure, so that we emerge from difficulties stronger, wiser, and more able.” *
We need to grow our inner life for a fruitful outer life. To be resilient we need to know and take care of our soul. We need to know who we are and who we can turn to when life gets hard. To be resilient, we also need to keep going and continue growing, knowing there is a time to produce and a time to rest and be revitalized. You will only find blossoms on the tree in the spring but you can remember the possibility of their promise of new life anytime.
“Inherent in life is meaning…The life of the seed bursts forth in root and stalk and fruit — the whole process takes place within.” Howard Thurman
This past year has challenged us to draw from our roots and find new ways to rebuild our lives. Let’s do what we can to make the most of it, emerging “stronger, wiser, and more able.”
* Carole Pemberton, Resilience: A Practical Guide for Coaches