Forest? Trees? This reference is one of my favorite wakeup calls. However, if perhaps English isn’t your native language, the original saying goes something like this, “He (anyone) can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Like so many things in these beleaguered times, this simple phrase can have many connotations and perspective can play an integral part of that.
First, let us assume that a forest is a large-ish area composed of trees. Now suppose we take the phrase literally and examine the situation of two people. Bob is standing in a field a half mile from Alice, who is also standing in a field, but separated by 100 yards of trees from Bob. Got it? Two people in a field, a half mile apart, separated by a strip of trees 100 yards wide.
Bob, shouting in search of Alice, stops when she finally responds.
Bob: Where are you?
Alice: Over here.
Bob: In the forest?
Alice: No, behind the trees.
In this case, we have a very literal example of not being able to see the forest for the trees, basically due to perspective, or where you stand in the world. To Alice, she’s not in a forest, but to Bob, he hears her voice coming through a large-ish area of trees, or a forest.
If you’re not familiar with the storyline in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men“, I’ll now spoil the ending for you, but I won’t tell you the full story. I know, I know, you can thank me later. Let it suffice to know that it’s the Great Depression and George, Lenny’s friend and guardian, has led them to work as migrant workers in California. Lenny, a gentle giant with the mind of a child, has done a “bad thing” (innocently killed a woman) and run away to the place that George had arranged to meet him if anything bad ever happened.
We’ll now pick up the scene where George finds Lenny and distracts him by asking him to tell the over-familiar, bed-time story of the life they’ll have once they save up enough money to buy their own place and raise rabbits for Lenny to pet (to death). This is the scene I was doing in class that day when I studied acting with the inimitable Terry Schreiber.
With the hounds and ranch hands in pursuit for what Lenny has done, George (played by me in this scene) encourages Lenny to see the dream as if it were real. Then, with the years of frustration of constantly saving Lenny and deep brotherly love and tears in his heart, he shoots him to spare him the law’s punishment for the crime of which he has absolutely no awareness.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with forests and trees? Well, after the scene was finished, my scene partner (Lenny) and I waited for the critique that was always there from Terry and the class. Terry just stared at me (as he does when he collects his thoughts). Finally, he said, “Where were you? Certainly not here today.”
“I don’t know. I guess I should have canceled the scene.”
Terry said, “Why is that?” (I knew I wouldn’t get off that easily.)
“Well, just before class I got off the phone with one of my brothers and he really pissed me off — again. I’ve been bailing him out for years, and I guess I just had enough today.”
Silence in the room. Slowly they all turned to Terry who sat staring at me. Eventually, he turned and looked at April, another student, and said, “April? Anything to add?”
April, who was able to tell the difference between a forest and some trees said,
“You do realize that’s what the scene was about, don’t you? You could have simply remembered your phone call and said these words and it would have been brilliant.”
Terry: “Do it again. April’s way.”
Need I say that it was brilliant? Or so I’m told.
Sometimes it’s good to look at the big picture AND those short-term goals. But sometimes, you need to be able to see the tree right in front of you too.
And here’s the final story, because this one could be life and death.
I have a friend who needs surgery. At least that’s what those of us who are not in his head think. He, however, insists on treating this holistically, which normally I am not averse to doing. During the recent hurricane Irma, he was desperately worried about us in Florida. While he was mildly frantic and sometimes fiercely pushing us to leave the state, we were insisting that we had prepared as best we could and would be safe.
Well, we were fine and honestly, I’ve been through much worse. But about a week after it was all over, he reminded us again that the next time we have a hurricane here, we should LEAVE.
Numerous frustrating conversations, for all involved, have happened over the months, because everyone thinks that they have the answer. Due to the scale of the issues (hurricane safety or life safety), it’s frustrating to anyone when their answer seems to be ignored. Who’s looking at the forest and who’s looking at the trees? As we’ve seen, that could be an issue of perspective and it all depends on whose shoes you are standing in. Or false pride. Or otherwise smart people ignoring that one little chink in their armor. For me, it’s frequently the failure to see the difference between Urgent and Important because I see them as the same thing most of the time.
At any rate:
What’s the difference between his frustration over us ignoring his advice regarding our safety and him ignoring our advice over his safety?
The difference is perspective. That’s why this blog is called “Payin Attention” because those forests sure look like trees sometimes.