The Man Who Planted Trees tells the story of a man whose character is one of the most perfect and simple images of selfless effort that can be found in literature. In the beginning of the book, he is a middle-aged man, and the story ends with his death. Here is the image that is given of him when we first meet him in the story:
This man spoke little. This is common among those who live alone, but he seemed sure of himself, and confident in this assurance, which seemed remarkable in this land shorn of everything. He lived not in a cabin but in a real house of stone, from the looks of which it was clear that his own labor had restored the ruins he had found on his arrival…
His household was in order, his dishes washed, his floor swept, his soup boiled over the fire; I noticed then that he was also freshly shaven, that all his buttons were solidly sewn, and that his clothes were mended with such care as to make the patches invisible.
He shared his soup with me, and when afterwards I offered him my tobacco pouch, he told me that he didn’t smoke.
Over the course of the book, the story is told of how this man is using his life to plant thousands and thousands of trees. This in a land which, at the beginning of the story, is totally dry and barren, and at the story’s end has become transformed into a place that is unrecognisable from how it was before, lush and green.
Though the work this man does is remarkable and inspiring to think about on its own, what is most wonderful about the character of the Man Who Planted Trees is not what he does, but the manner in which he does it. He is quiet, alone, understated, unremarkable, and does not speak much: he feels no need to show off by giving speeches to all he meets about the Importance of Planting Trees in the world, explaining in great length about what he is doing, or trying to convert others to his point of view.
He just does his job with the greatest care possible, and never seems to have a sense of discontentment or dissatisfaction with his life. His selflessness shows most in his quietness, his simplicity, his humility. The company of this man brought me a feeling of peace … he gave me the impression that nothing could disturb him.
Maybe hearing this story creates in you (as it did in me) the wish to be more like this man who planted trees. Maybe it makes you wonder why you can’t be more like him, maybe you have the thought, “How can a human being be so lovely, so full of goodness, so unselfish? How can somebody live with such extraordinary generosity and selflessness?
If we have this thought, it might be easy to give ourselves the excuse that such a thing doesn’t exist in Real Life, to say that human nature is not capable of it in reality and that it is the stuff of an idealised work of fiction. Even if we know somebody whose goodness we admire, we might just look at them and sigh and say “I’d like to be more like them, but I’m just not born like that.”
Instead of doing that, let us try looking at it from a different angle. What if being self-less were not really such a complex or profound thing? What if it were just a simple question of where one spends one’s time and energy?
To see what I mean by this, look inside yourself. Have you ever noticed how much of your day you spend thinking about Me, My problem, My job, My this, My that, what Everyone Else thinks about Me – defending Myself, protecting Myself, worrying about Myself, running around after what I want, what brings Me pleasure, going around collecting all the things that add to My life, My happiness, My comfort? And despite spending so much time and energy on going after your own pleasures – are you truly happy in life, are you fulfilled? Or is something still missing?
Have you seen that in yourself? If you do see that, then it is not hard to see why you cannot be as selfless as you would like to be! It takes up a lot of energy to go about our days running after what we want like a chicken hunting for worms, getting upset every time we don’t get what we want, and feeling only a brief relief when we do get it. Of course we don’t have much left to give to others!
We lose energy not only in thinking about ourselves all the time, but having so many things in life that we see as being necessary for our happiness. As long as we love our attachments, our pleasures, our comforts, we think of them as adding to our lives, making our lives better. We don’t realise how much pain and dissatisfaction they cause us: how, the more we are sticky to the things we feel we need in life to be happy, the more we become disturbed and agitated when at some moment we lose them; and the more we complicate our lives and make it harder to be at peace.
We think we are ‘caring’ for ourselves this way, but we are not: we are missing a much greater reward, as well as being unable to do much good in the world. As long as my mind is full of Me, I cannot look outward to be compassionate or generous towards others, or to consider some higher goal than me and my “I want.”
It’s like being a young tree trying to grow tall, towards the sun, but at the same time losing all its energy producing many branches: the more they grow big, the less you can grow up. If you are a good gardener who cares well for his trees, you have to continually prune them, removing all the branches that will cause them problems.
In the same way, if we wish to become more like the Man Who Planted Trees, we have to be prepared to cut off some of the branches of self-interest where we are losing our energy, so as to free ourselves to work for higher aims. We might need to give up some of what we like, to pare down our life and make it simpler. Look how little he has, the Man Who Planted Trees, in terms of material pleasures or comforts – living alone, with just the basic elements he needs to survive, no family, no entertainment, no noise; with just one clear aim and activity on which he works with ceaseless effort, content with very little.
Yet, giving up these things does not mean you are making yourself less happy! Quite the opposite. The best part about this is: like a tree, the more you grow upward, the more you see the sun, the more light touches you and gives warmth and energy. Renunciation of pleasures in the world of sensuality can make way for a much more profound peace of mind and contentment; and thoughts and actions that are not driven by self-interest, far from draining energy and leaving you exhausted, give energy back to you. Far from being left with emptiness inside, your heart becomes full of goodness, full of warmth and light.
Have you not at least once experienced this, that when you decide voluntarily against doing something for yourself for the sake of doing something to help someone else, how happy and joyful you feel, how light you are?
If you want to look one step further, try imagining, just for a moment, what it would be like to have no selfishness at all, no ego at all – that means nothing to defend, nothing to feel hurt when criticised, nobody to feel angry when disrespected, nothing that is unhappy when they don’t have what they want. What a release it is! There is no freedom that can compare to this freedom, joy that can compare to this joy.
This is how truly to have compassion for oneself: for when you renounce parts of your selfishness and replace them with selfless actions and behaviour instead, you are, paradoxically, giving yourself the greatest possible gift. The one who is truly selfless, who shines from inside with so much love, compassion, generosity, friendliness and good will, has no need to depend on pleasure or happiness from the love of others or from anything outside. Regardless of his material condition, he is one of the happiest people in the world.