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Fisher of Men

You Are a Tree (Not a Machine)

You Are a Tree (Not a Machine)

by Joy Clarkson

“Lord, I want to flourish in Your Presence—like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God. As the sunlight of Your Presence shines upon me, it nourishes me so I can produce fruit in Your Kingdom.”
– Jesus Listens, October 31st

Machine like productivity

You think that you have never described yourself as a machine, or thought, I am a computer. But think of how we describe ourselves processing something like a hard drive whirring away, or how we tell a friend that we need to update each other about life events, like new software. We adjust to new circumstances like a car whose tires need to be rotated; people push our buttons; we need to power down so we can recharge. When we don’t understand something, we might say it does not compute. When someone has been influenced to think or behave in a certain way, we say that they were programmed to trust authority. We might describe ourselves as a slow processor. This metaphor can even be a compliment: of someone who is particularly productive, we often say they are a machine.

Losing charge

There are, of course, ways in which we are like a computer: we have limited energy, which we need to replenish, like a computer losing charge. Sometimes the experience of learning something feels like inputting data, and it takes some time to work its way through our view of the world—to process, that is. But we are not as simple as machines: we do not function the same way every day. But this is not a bad thing. Our porousness, our arbitrary loyalties and attachments, are not a mere weakness. And we are much more resilient than computers. I have not yet succeeded in regrowing a limb, but I have survived things my computer couldn’t dream of. It is not that human beings are a bad version of computers.

Sophisticated design

The metaphor of humans being machines ultimately fails to grasp the needs and strengths of human beings because a machine, even a very advanced one like a computer, is for the most part much less sophisticated in design than the constantly morphing organism that is a human. What do our lives look like if we see ourselves as trees instead of machines? We can do things computers can’t yet even dream of. We can clot blood, write poetry, form romantic attachments, and cook spaghetti Bolognese all while being—according to human standards—fairly stupid. The ways in which we “fail” to be a computer fall close to humankind’s greatest strengths: loyalty, resilience, intuition, creativity.

Planted tree

That trees are planted reminds us that trees have roots. Rootedness is one of the ways we intuitively describe the kind of stability that leads to flourishing and the kind of instability that leaves us dry, parched, and desperate. 

Recognizing our plantedness, however, allows us to approach ourselves and others with mystery, mercy, and patience. Mystery because it prevents us from assuming  

that we can understand and judge how someone came to be who they are and invites us to approach one another with an air of wonder—however tangled their roots may be, they have emerged here, standing tall. It encourages us to approach others with mercy since much of what forms our roots is not in our direct control; we did not get to choose which corner (or pot) of the world we’d be planted in, what family of trees our roots would be entangled with, what moles would make a home in the caverns of our root systems. And it allows us to approach ourselves and others with patience. While we might imagine roots as the physical manifestation of the past, fossilized fingers holding on to what has been, this is simply not the case. Trees are living things, and as long as they live, their roots are changing and growing. Deep, slow growth may be happening where we cannot see.

Varying seasons of life

When we see ourselves as trees we can accept the varying seasons of life, and even trust in their beneficial work. The psalmist does not say that the righteous man bears fruit all the time. Sometimes it can be frightening when it feels like our effort or prayer hasn’t borne fruit. But remembering you are a tree can relieve some of this anxiety by reminding us that even wintery seasons (as long as they feel) may be a time when our roots are growing deep and may precede the decadent glory of spring. This perspective encourages us to pay attention to what is happening in our lives, what season we are in. Trees are constantly adjusting to the weather, the sun, the nutrients in the soil, the activity of bugs and animals. This invites us to adopt a posture of agency in those waiting and wintery seasons; you need not only weather the storm, but also figure out what you need in this season to ready yourself for the next. Do you need to draw strength from the other trees in the forest around you? Do your roots need to grow deeper? In this, meditation on the metaphor of trees can offer some hope: seasons come again and again. Just because you had an early frost in life does not mean you will not bear fruit again. Just because you feel stripped down by life does not mean you will not flower again. You are not a machine, useless when one (or many!) of its parts expire; you are a miraculous and beloved creation, with more resilience pulsing through your roots than you know. 

Adapted from You Are a Tree by Joy Marie Clarkson, provided by Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright 2024. Used by permission.

About The Author


Joy Clarkson is the author of You Are a Tree and host of the popular podcast, Speaking with Joy. She is the books editor for Plough Quarterly and a research associate in theology and literature at King’s College London. Joy completed her PhD in theology at the University of St. Andrews, where she researched how art can be a resource of hope and consolation. Joy loves daffodils, birdwatching, and a well-brewed cup of Yorkshire Gold tea.

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