This summer, I went to California to see the ancient groves of Sequoias and stood in the presence of giants rising augustly out of a charred black landscape. It was a remarkably spiritual experience. It was more than just the sight of them, the perspective of standing next to a life form that stretches so far into the sky you are but a mouse beside it. It was their story and a shared understanding that it is the hardest of times that makes us who we are, that teaches us how much we can endure, and that provides us with some of life’s most magnificent gifts.
The most majestic Sequoias have survived fires and droughts and for thousands of years. But this strength comes into existence in extreme conditions. The Sequoia seeds, small and light as oat flakes, sit trapped in their cones for up to 20 years. They will not fall on their own. They need the heat of fire to set them free. And it is in the burned remains of the fallen ancestors—many of which have waited years to give their nutrients back to the earth—that the seedlings find life and sustenance.
Seven years ago, I stood on the roof of the hospital in which my father had just lost his fight for life. Staring up at a small, tear-blurred patch of stars, I could not see how it was possible for life to go on in the face of such desolation. It was not the first time I had felt utterly devastated, but it was the first time that I could not help but let the emotions run their course. For months, I cried at some point of every day. Grief raged through a forest littered with some small and petty grievances and some truly traumatic experiences. When the fire subsided, this clutter of emotional dead wood had been reduced to a layer of ash. I felt as though I walked in a new world. Grief had softened and opened me, and in the ashes sprouted a ravenous love for life desperate to branch out and reach for the sky.
Even now, I often catch my breath at the wonders all around me. Since my father’s death, I have been to more than 20 different countries. I have tended bar in London, taught snow skiing in the Swiss Alps, and basked in a beam of light in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Just this summer, I watched a herd of dolphins a thousand strong playing in the waves. Just this weekend, I watched dragonflies flitting over a stream and saw my first blue-tailed skink. I appreciate these all the more because my partner and I have recently split, the house won’t sell, and I am all but helpless to watch as my grandparents lose their battles with age and Alzheimer’s. Like the trees, we are marked by all of our experiences, and with each ring we grow a new layer of strength and fortitude.
Albert Camus said, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” I believe that within all of us, there is a seed of invincible summer, the potential for fortitude and happiness that can endure the coldest winters and the hottest summers. And I believe that, like the seeds of the mighty Sequoias, it often takes the searing of a seemingly destructive force to bring forth and nourish this inner strength.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.