I wrote this on a retreat in September of 2011.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” An idiom that symbolizes the idea that one and one’s offspring may not be all that different from one another. The nuclear family is the central piece of this idiom and so it’s fair to say that it’s probably rooted in Western tradition. If it were Eastern, it may not focus on the individual apple and the individual tree – because villages, and extended families raise children in Africa and Asia. And so the conversation might be about an apple grove and a bunch of apples.
And even though this one was between two Easterners, the question of the apple and the tree was much more than an idiom, and it was much more than light-hearted either. Even over dinner, where it was asked, by an unassuming bystander. Of course, unassuming is a stretch, because if we’re all innocent then we’re all guilty too, that, in a phrase, is the postmodern dilemma – to be nothing is to be everything and so in a world where nothing matters and everything is meaningless, everything matters and has meaning, and so one’s actions do matter and we’re always assuming something – and so even an unassuming question from an unassuming individual, even if it meant nothing, means something.
But even over the dinner, where it was asked and pondered, the question was obviously already answered. The difference between the Spanish wine that the apple was sipping and the Diet Coke with a lemon wedge that the tree was drinking almost made the question redundant.
The apple jokingly wondered out loud at the possibility that the fruit that the apple tree bore was in fact not an apple. That more than just its distance from the tree, was the fact that it was a different species altogether. A joke, perhaps, but more than that in some sense too – the difference between detachment and rebellion is noteworthy – young adults may not always get that. How the apple wished it were a peach in its younger days, as it pained through its adolescent life stuck to its branch, waiting for the autumn to come, when it would finally fall and get a life of its own. A death of its own too, one that would plant new seeds into the ground, and would it birth an apple that demanded again so much to be cut off from its source.
Of course, the apple is satisfied to simply fall at all – it doesn’t need to be a peach – it simply needs to grow and learn that it’s a different, separate apple. If we could all fall, it we could all detach and become our own fruits, with our own seeds, and our own direction – well then the idiom would just make sense.
But so many painfully stay on the tree, fearing falling from the tree – the young apple doesn’t know that within it (and without it), it has all of the life that it will ever need and that the world is much bigger than the tree where it grew up. That there is a Hope that is best-experienced after we fall from the tree, that that Hope is eternal and it was even before the apple’s tree even existed. Of course we all used to be apples – even the apple’s tree was an apple – and maybe he fell just as violently, maybe he struggled to fall, maybe his tree held on even more tightly. We all used to be apples – some of us still are – but for those of who have fell, we realize that others may have fallen just as violently and as tragically. We all have that common experience – and so, no, the apple and the tree aren’t that different at all. None of us, because we can use such a term, have fallen very far from each other.
Maybe every apple needs to feel the pain of the break, the risk of falling on the dirt below. The risk that it will hurt if its too late in the season and the ground has frozen, or risk being scorched by the hot summer sun if it’s knocked down too early. The wet autumn ground, covered with leaves, softens the blow – but the impact exists nevertheless. And why bother comparing its fate with that of other apples? Autumn is so unpredictable anyway – or maybe it just always hurts to fall.
But for the apple, the break and the fall were so crushing, took so long, they frustratingly still mark and affect him. What a burden, what expectation, what fear – what happens when the apple’s planted, becomes a tree, and his its own apple that pulls and pulls, even before the harvest?
Such is the life of the apple. But for the fallen, we know, that life is better on the ground, it’s real here – half-planted as it were. In the grove where we all live, there are those of us who are decaying on our trees, never having the courage to break the stem. For some, a sense of guilt plagues them, those of us who see above us the emptiness of the old trees from which we have fallen.
The trees, whose sense of purpose is gone, because they are too old to bear new fruit, and their own fruit has left them. What is a tree if it can’t bear fruit? It is neither one thing nor another – it was never just one thing. But now it is everything else – that’s the beautiful thing about trees. They don’t just have one purpose. The provide shade, comfort, support, presence, and add significance to a forest. And even if its death, which is part of its fear and its limpness, there is more it can provide, too. It is certainly not the apple’s job to comfort and support the loneliness of the tree. The tree has had a life to live and will at least cope with its emptiness, but hopefully find fulfillment beyond spreading its seed.
Back to the wine and Coke dinner and the idiom, the fall wasn’t too bad nor too far – at least it happened. We really haven’t fallen that far from each other, in terms of interests, but because so much of the detachment centered on philosophy – we were never just talking about politics and religion – there is pain and hurt that lingers around those subjects. In some sense, that’s the only way that we ever learned to relate. So bringing up those topics seems to be the only possible way we can connect beyond platitudes – even when I swear I’m not going to. But I’m so guarded and so unlikely to engage beyond the general questions, the ones not meant for any depth — “did you see…,” “what did you think of…,” – we are damned to relate in simple terms.
And I see his pain, the pain of his irrelevance. Certainly that’s how some apples feel when they are stuck to the tree and want to fall. Is that how he felt growing up? Welcome to the painful and familiar world of repetition compulsion. We’ve made ourselves feel the same way again, the same way that they’ve made us feel. But we know well at this point that no one makes anyone feel anything — that our feelings are ours and no one else’s.
Perhaps the evidence of the apple’s independence and stability is enough. That the apple is its own tree now – that should give him the satisfaction.
Is that our fate? Is that it? Should all just strive to be independent? Should our marriage, children, jobs, and education be that which satisfies us? Is that it? Here I am, Dad – happily married with beautiful children and money. That means you did a good job. Is it the point to be totally independent, grossly enmeshed and codependent, or perhaps completely inconsequential and apathetic? I guess the West, the East, and the Postmodernists didn’t get it. And I guess this is why we should stop using idioms.