The Best Time to Plant a Tree

Dr. Helane FronekYears ago, on returning from my brother-in-law’s funeral, I discovered a colleague had been hospitalized with DVT. Tired at the end of a long day of seeing patients, I wanted to go home and spend time with my kids, thinking I could see my colleague the next day. Then it struck me that my 48-year-old brother-in-law had died suddenly while awaiting a heart transplant.

Instead of going home, I went to my colleague’s hospital room and we had a lovely visit. I had always regretted never telling him how instrumental he was in the course of my career. Without his encouragement, I would not have had the faith to enter a new field of medicine, where I discovered renewed passion and purpose.

Recalling a beautiful Chinese proverb, “the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago—but the second best time to plant a tree is today,” I shared my appreciation for the interest he took in me so many years earlier and let him know how profoundly he had impacted my career and my life. He died that night.

If I had gone home instead, neither my life nor his would have changed. Yet, to this day, I am grateful I made the effort and had a chance to thank him, even belatedly.

We all want to know that we matter, and I wanted him to understand that, in addition to his many accomplishments in life, he mattered to me. Showing gratitude after the fact is one thing, but there are many other times we discourage ourselves from planting trees because it’s no longer 20 years ago.

How often do we turn away from new (or old, unexplored) interests because we feel we’re too old to start something new? How many times do we hear ourselves say, “I’ve always wanted to…” and then invoke any number of excuses for why we cannot try? What would our lives be like if, instead of saying no, we said yes to at least one new thing a day, a month, or even a year? How much more joy might we feel, excitement might we experience, or inspiration might we become for others if we planted those trees in our lives?

As we look forward to 2018, we can take a moment and consider one tree we would like to plant. Is there something you’ve wanted to tell someone? A hobby you’d like to take up? A book you’ve wanted to read? A mindfulness practice you’ve been yearning to start?

Let’s commit to the first small step that will allow us to plant that tree so that we have a new and exciting accomplishment or prospect to build our confidence and excitement for the year to come.