By Dr. Allison Belger
The idiom,“You can’t see the forest for the trees,” reminds us that sometimes, if your vantage point is too close, it is difficult or impossible to take in the whole picture. We often use this to describe what happens when people get so consumed by details that they can’t appreciate the totality of a situation. Like viewing a painting from so close that your focus is on the individual brush strokes or fine lines, taking in an experience from the inside, only, might prevent you from making sense of the overall image.
It’s been almost three months since I posted my last article on this blog. Although it wasn’t a conscious decision to take a break from writing, I followed my gut and didn’t push a new topic until one came to me naturally. Yes, the chaos of the holidays and some significant work events played a role here, but mostly I write when I feel like writing and/or when an idea with legs surfaces on its own. When that didn’t happen for an extended period of time, I went with it; doing so gave me a renewed conviction that I should only write when I am inspired. Since starting this blog three years ago, I have come to realize that I write for pleasure and to share ideas with my readers; this is not my “job,” nor do I write in order to sell a product or build a brand. Were I never to allow myself to go with the ebb and flow of ideas and drive to write, I’d likely force the writing, and both my enjoyment of the process and the quality of my content would suffer.
As I’ve written before, it can be quite difficult to take a few steps back and evaluate a pursuit in which we’ve become personally invested. Discussing the process of considering a break from training for a particular sport or physical challenge, I wrote the following in 2013:
Having the capacity to make changes in our lives is critical. Having the courage to shake up our own status quo is hard. Familiarity is comforting, even when imperfect. The idea of stepping away from something to which we’ve given a solid chunk of ourselves is frightening. Maybe it’s the feeling that all of the time, energy, planning, we have put into the endeavor will seem like a big waste if we leave it behind. Perhaps we are afraid that we won’t find anything else to fill the void…Then there’s the addiction element: perhaps something about our training and physical pursuits serves a function far greater than fulfilling our competitive drive or helping to keep us in shape. Maybe, like any addiction, it has become a way to prevent ourselves from feeling something we are afraid to feel or from knowing something about ourselves that we are afraid to face.
This analysis, I think, applies to far more than physical training. If we are so immersed in the day-to-day of any pursuit—be it a relationship, a job, a hobby-turned-obsession—that we can no longer see the forest for the trees, it might be time for a new perspective. Many of us, as parents, encourage our kids to do this all the time: if you’re playing a sport five out of seven-days-a-week year round, perhaps it’s time to check in and be sure it’s still rewarding and fun. Has that spontaneous and joyful experience of jamming with some friends become a tedious band practice every day? Maybe it’s time to put down the guitar, and listen to that inner voice about what you find positive and meaningful. Most likely there’s a balance to strike or a change to be made that invites the joy of the pursuit back in.
As adults, we are just as easily consumed by our projects and habits and hobbies and commitments. The trees may seem lovely enough, but how’s that forest doing? My message this week as I come back from my own brief hiatus is this: Be sure to step back from time to time, take in the big picture at the expense of the details, and assess your relationship to the ways you are spending your time, finances, energy, and precious psychological resources. Have your activities become automatic, lacking in spirit and resonance?
The good news is that there’s always time for change. But, like almost everything in life, making something different happen will likely require an open mind and some emotional fortitude. Stick with it; the process and outcome are worth it