Trees are Not Bored, But Humanity May Be

July 2, 2014

On a really snowy day last January, I was thinking about this old persimmon tree in the park. It bugged me because that gnarly old tree had to stand by itself out there in the cold, with the snow falling all around and no one nearby at all. How desolate!

Dog in the snow - Feb. 8, 2014

Dog in snow – Kinuta Park, Feb. 8, 2014 (Enlarge)

On the other hand, that tree must be fast asleep, so I shouldn’t worry about him. Yes, I imagine trees in winter are asleep. They don’t feel cold or anything. They’ve dropped all their leaves, so they don’t need to worry about freezing or building up heavy loads of snow that might break the branches. So the tree is just standing there totally unconscious, and it doesn’t mind the cold or the darkness of winter time, or the lack of people – certainly not! What does a tree care about people?

For a tree, the difference between life and death is not a matter of the moment, as it is for us animals. Life, for a tree, means the ability to grow and blossom, but in winter the tree can’t really do those things. We have to wait for spring before we can even know whether the tree survived the winter at all.

For a tree, death can be partial. Some branches of the tree might die while other branches remain alive and healthy. Can you imagine that? How would you feel if your leg got numb one day, and then it was paralyzed, and then your whole leg just dried up and shriveled? Let’s say you feel fine in the rest of your body, but it’s just that one leg that has died!

After a while you start pulling and scratching at it, and you actually break off your dead leg and throw it away. It doesn’t hurt. In fact, it feels good. And now you don’t have that extra weight to carry around anymore.

Maybe trees don’t think of themselves as individuals. Well, I’m pretty sure trees don’t think at all, much less of themselves. But suppose trees did think in some way, and suppose the trees thought of themselves as a species, rather than as individuals. A tree might say to me, “What you think of as a tree is just the top part that sticks up. There’s a whole lot more to me than this!”

The way we look at trees might be analogous to some alien creature arriving on Earth and looking at us people but just paying attention to the hair on top of our heads. The aliens spend a lot of time touching our hair, combing it and washing it, braiding it and luxuriating in it, but those aliens might totally ignore the rest of the human being!

A tactic for fighting boredom

Maybe individuality is like a tactic human beings use for avoiding existential boredom.

See, humanity as a whole has accomplished more or less all its goals and has little left to worry about. Sure, there might be poverty and pestilence, but that’s just like leaves falling off a tree. It doesn’t threaten the existence of humanity as a whole. And sure, there might be terrible wars and strife, but that might just be one dead branch falling off an otherwise healthy tree. Humanity as a whole is not facing extinction. Not by a long shot.

So if you didn’t think of yourself as an individual, and if you identified with humanity as a whole, you wouldn’t have any significant problems to worry about. And that would be boring!

Maybe humanity as a whole is suffering from existential boredom because we don’t know where we’re going, as a species, and we no longer have any existential challenges like we did back in stone age times, when we were the hunted instead of the hunters.

People generally don’t identify with the species as a whole. People have their own individual identities. And when you think of yourself as an individual, suddenly you face real problems. I’m going to die! I feel sick already! I’m hungry and cold and lonely. An individual’s need for purpose in life is amply satisfied with these basic physical problems.

Maybe individuality is like a tactic people use for avoiding existential boredom.