Be rooted like a banyan tree. It was a powerful thing she said. Her patent effortlessness in stating it truly betrayed how long these words would stick with me. They ran counter to what I’d so far understood about human nature, about my own humanity, but their gravitation was hard to deny. I was pulled right in.
I can never get the picture she evoked out of my head. There was no tree around for miles, for starters. All trees have roots, but that doesn’t stop them from leaning over a building or falling under a storm. The banyan is an exception. It grows huge, it spreads over the entire field, but as it grows, its stems reach out to the ground and burrow themselves in. The bigger the tree, the vaster these roots. A banyan tree never leans, never falls. Be rooted like a banyan tree. It was a contagious quote. She’d heard it from her boyfriend, who now lived on another continent, but the quote had stuck with her ever since as it has stuck with me now. It might stick with you too.
But it’s not the seeming honesty of it that fascinates me, it’s the deceptive revelation it carries. Not being rooted feels good, I’ll be honest. Finding shade under a tree, leaning on the rails of a balcony, confiding your deepest feelings to someone, it feels comforting, almost homely if you’ve practised enough in the arts of leaning and relying. Standing against the wind all by yourself feels joyless, heartless. (I respect a human who survived forty days in the sea alone, but I admire two humans who survived ten in the forest together.) Makes sense how a tree can pull it off. But should I do the same?
What she said stuck with me because to put it in practise seems like fighting my natural state of being. Vulnerability comes so naturally, but this strength of standing on your own requires effort. Is it even strength though? It reeks of stubbornness to not rely on someone while your genes have programmed you into seeking belonging. Being vulnerable is fascinating. It’s a skill only our species is capable of, a skill that governs almost all our choices, and in the process makes or breaks us. Do it right and you develop meaningful bonds. Do it wrong and you sabotage whatever was blooming.
On a rough day, you could have opened up to that english teacher in school more than you ever had to that childhood friend next door. Is it then an art to be vulnerable? To strike the balance between connecting with people and turning them away? To decide just how much you offer a window to your life, your experiences, your desires? Call it an ugly lack of nuance, but are you even vulnerable if the doors aren’t fully flying open?
Maybe what she said stuck with me to save me from the extremes of my humanity. To not be rooted, to lean, to be seen in your state of strength as of weakness can scare people away. It leaves you no choice but to stand on your own. To be leaned on, to be opened up to is a heavy responsibility. Even still, to let someone seek comfort in you can be burdensome. It’s easier to unravel to a stranger in a bus, who you’d never see again and who can be saved from carrying the awareness of your existence around; but to unravel to a friend you’ve known for years or to your very family tends to imprison them to you. In that, it feels selfish. And if the people you choose to lean on, if they were to sense the burden of it and to shirk away, the stranger on the bus won’t be coming to save you.
Maybe then the appeal of this phrase lies in the atomization of our society, in the increasingly apparent fact that in a world where jobs and markets save you, where you leave everything behind to earn money or buy vanity, human connections can’t endure, and so will be more volatile than the stock markets, and the only way to brave being alive is to not extend yourself outside your own body.
Maybe her words have stuck with me because I struggle more with vulnerability than evidently common. If the world inside your mind resembles the world you cohabit with others, you can keep the doors open. To you then, vulnerability is as profound as the act of singing out the new song you last heard. It doesn’t require practise, calculations, overthinking, anxiety. We all live in different layers of dissonance with reality, and the starker your dissonance, the more intense your compulsion to shut your doors. It’s only when you grow too heavy cultivating the world you hold inside, that it gets too hard to keep carrying it without sharing it. By being vulnerable, by leaning on someone and opening the door, you let them visit your gardens, take what they love and leave out the rest.
It lessens the burden. Maybe that’s why the conservatives laugh at vulnerability as weakness. When the world is designed to the advantage of the privileged, it’s easy to dismiss the dissonance of the exploited, the discriminated, the silenced. To those of us cursed with seeking a world of our own, for the world we were given was not to our advantage, vulnerability is not really a choice. It is random acts of rooting for others, of believing in their permanence and of giving them a chance to root back, that vulnerability becomes a way of reducing, and probably the only way of reducing the dissonance we carry. Perhaps the banyan tree is at battle with the very core of my philosophy, yet it comes back to haunt me every time an act of leaning on leaves me lonesome.
Or maybe I am getting it all wrong. Maybe being your own support can go hand in hand with being vulnerable. For the longest time I’ve used writing and humor to build myself up while also expressing things I wish to say. Maybe there are other tools out there to balance the two.
A friend of mine expresses his feelings like he’s describing the workings of a clock. He says extraordinary things with professional mundanity. Makes it easier, I suppose. Another friend always rants against the people that remind him of himself. There’s vulnerability in outward projections of self hate. Another friend unloads himself like a dishwasher after downing two drinks, and he hates being reminded of it the morning after. He cringes, where cringe is just a hip substitute for shame.
At the end of the day, I still don’t know why that quote has stuck with me. On days I trust my instinct and rely on someone, the words feel at odds with a fuller human experience. On days it leaves me feeling powerless and sad, the words bring strength from within.
The other day I googled if banyan trees ever fall after a heavy storm, and of course they do. Despite how firmly they’re rooted, of course they fall. But I also stumbled upon how they’re born. They don’t germinate in raw soil. To grow, their seeds need to fall into the cracks of a host tree, where the air and rain allow them to grow over the host, to wrap themselves around its trunks and to shoot their roots from its stems into the soil below. What we see as one tree is in fact two trees in a symbiotic union, both together safer from the winds than they are by themselves. So maybe we’ve been reading it all wrong. Maybe vulnerability, codependence, symbiosis, it just makes life on earth easier. Or maybe it doesn’t.
Or maybe it’s just a tree that would prefer not to have his existence reduced to metaphors to help us navigate our lives. Maybe it’s not built for that sort of vulnerability. We, though, are.