I live in a part of Northern California where acacia trees grow. Actually, they do more than grow. They explode for the entire month of February. Right now, their leaves are changing from an indistinct green to a hazy olive. As their blossoms emerge, the trees will turn amber and then mustard, filling the Santa Cruz mountains with color that you’d find in a Monet landscape.
Unfortunately, like a lot of things, acacia trees and their February ritual don’t grab our attention until we don’t have them anymore. What is it about us humans that we tend to notice things more by their absence than their presence? Why do we overlook the wonder in front of us until there is nothing left to wonder at? That includes people and opportunities, of course, and I am as guilty as the next guy.
I am excited to see the acacias bloom this year. When I mention this to people who have lived in the area for a long time, they act surprised or unimpressed. Most say they never noticed them before, some didn’t know they are called acacias. Still others complain about allergies.
This reminds me of the apocryphal story of the blind man who, upon regaining his sight, told his friends that the real miracle was seeing in the first place, not getting back something he had lost.
Most of us don’t operate that way. We live by addition and multiplication, accumulating as much as possible so that our overall numbers increase, from grades to credit scores to net worth. But life doesn’t care much for multiplication tables. If anything, life is about subtraction. That’s where growth happens, as ironic and painful as that may be. Loss, especially death, presses our nose into the reality in front of us.
Yet, who wants to live that way? I’d rather not be valedictorian in what used to be called the school of hard knocks. Then there’s the adage, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, about experience keeping a dear school but a fool learning in no other.
If you’re like me and learn the hard way, then maybe it’s time to stand back and reflect on what you’re doing. The Jesuits call this discernment. It leads to indifference, which doesn’t mean you’re not interested. You’re just not so invested in the outcome that you have a conniption if things don’t go your way. At work they call this micromanaging, which usually comes from fear of failure, but that’s another story.
There’s another way to look at this, even simpler than arithmetic. It has to do with gratitude but is more than being grateful for what we have, although that is hard enough. It has to do with our attitude toward the unknown and those things under our noses that we don’t see. The best way to think about it is subtraction again.
First, take stock of the things, events, people, and opportunities that surround you, then take them away one by one. Granted, that might look like freedom, but it can also lead to loneliness and loss, neither one of which is easy to get used to. Finally, add them back again, one by one, and your attitude may begin to change just like the Santa Cruz mountains turning bright yellow in February.
As always, there are thorns. Even Oz had flying monkeys. The acacia has sharp thorns so as not to be nibbled on by wandering beasts in the deserts of the Middle East, where it is abundant. In fact, it is so abundant that scholars believe the Ark of the Covenant was made from acacia wood (Exodus 25).
If the ark represents the relationship between the Hebrews and Yahweh, it also symbolizes their infidelity toward the God that brought them out of slavery in Egypt. In fact, you could easily refer to it as the Ark of the Broken Covenant except that the covenant refers to God’s commitment, not the unfulfilled promises of the twelve tribes.
So there exist two way of seeing acacia trees, one of which is not to see them at all. The other dares us to look at what’s in front of us, which may be too close for most people to see. Still, if you’re breathing you have to choose, so get ready.
February will come soon enough.