Find Yourself Up a Tree?

It might be good for you

By Tom Allen

Recently, on a walk in my neighborhood, to log those elusive 10,000 daily steps we’re now told we don’t necessarily need, I had the bejeebies scared out of me. As I passed a thicket of trees, someone called out from above, “Hello, there.”

I’m a man of faith but, really?

Somewhat shaken, I responded, “Hello to you.” And I continued my walk. When I reversed my direction and passed by the same stand of trees, I saw a neighborhood kid, maybe 8 or 9, who had climbed a tree and was sitting on a limb, like the Cheshire Cat, as content as could be. A kid up a tree. Not on his PS5 or Xbox. He climbed a tree and, from what I saw, he wasn’t on a cellphone, scrolling through social media or Googling something he shouldn’t be Googling. He had climbed a tree. And, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he wasn’t trying to scare the bejeebies out of me, he was rather friendly.

The next day, I saw two teenagers gliding down the road on skateboards. Kids at play. What a concept.

A wall at a new elementary school has caused quite a stir with the slogan “In the business of play.” I’ll let the powers that be hash out what welcomes folks at a newly constructed school. But whether you write it on a wall, a billboard or a T-shirt, one thing’s for sure: Children, really all of us, need the gift and therapy play provides.

We’re all familiar with the saying “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The phrase comes from a collection of proverbs, written in 1659 by James Howell, a British historian and writer. Jack might have been real or fictitious, a friend or a figment. Howell’s father and older brother were Church of England clergy. Maybe James saw his dad and sibling as 17th century workaholics. Maybe they were boring chaps at family gatherings, or maybe they were so busy rescuing souls that they had little time for family, a relaxing hunt in the country, or a nice swim in the Thames. Maybe they, or even Howell himself, had trouble keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest. In his day, a plethora of seventh-day restrictions existed, many prohibiting even a modicum of recreation and revelry. Or perhaps Jack was a boy, a kid, who for whatever reason never skipped stones across a pond, turned somersaults down a hill, chased a butterfly, or even climbed a tree.

When we hear someone’s found themselves “up a tree” that usually means they’re in a pickle. But sometimes, finding yourself up a tree, or in a hammock, or simply doing nothing, might be the best thing. The anecdote is cliché by now, but we are human beings, not human doings.

I’m not advocating putting yourself at risk. Your hips and knees recognize boundaries. But maybe after a year and a half of isolating and masking, we need to give ourselves permission to climb trees and fly kites, to fish and swim, to sing and laugh and do, well, a little of nothing.

St. Luke’s Gospel records the story of Zacchaeus, a fellow short in stature who wanted to catch a glimpse of Jesus when he came into town. Unable to get a good view, he climbed a tree. The story carries a profound message. This little man, a tax collector, despised by his culture and an outcast in his religion, is befriended by one who wants to have dinner with him, but the story, like Noah and his beloved ark full of animals, has been passed down as more of a children’s tale. Why? Maybe because climbing a tree is for kids, not grownups. A beloved British children’s Sunday school song reinforces the idea:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he,

He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see,

And as the Lord did pass that way, he looked up in that tree,

And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house
for tea.”

Our Americanized version replaces “for tea” with “today.”  Either way, the little man who found himself up a tree came out the recipient of quite a surprise.

The next time someone tells you to “go fly a kite” or “take a hike,” the old-fashioned ways of saying “get lost,” try responding with, “Don’t mind if I do.” Or when life finds you in a pickle and “up a tree,” consider climbing one, or at least, sitting beneath its shade, if only to impart insight into the tension between uncertainty and hope. And if someone passes by, offer a kind, “Hello, there.” Who knows, you might just make a friend, get invited to dinner, or find your way back to childhood days, carefree and playful, when summer morphed into fall. I think you deserve it. I think we all do. PS

Tom Allen is minister of education at First Baptist Church, Southern Pines.

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