Devil trees and leadership
Over the holiday break, a contingent of our family stood on a hill overlooking Panama City. As we took in the view, our son Cameron remarked, “It’s all about perspective, isn’t it? I might suffer a terrible death. From a personal perspective that would be catastrophic. In this city, that might make news. Yet, from a historical perspective, that is nothing. How many millions have suffered the same? It becomes nothing.”
We listened to the sounds of the city and watched women hanging laundry out of windows below. We surveyed the skyline, a building fashioned to look like a corkscrew, and the ocean etching a border.
Senya, Cameron’s sister, then encouraged us to contemplate that cities, or systems, like this were rocking and rolling, moving and shaking across this country, across Central America and beyond. She brought up the struggle of actually comprehending how interdependent actions were madly occurring all around us and that we were somehow affecting the melee, even as observers from above. How many people were hanging their laundry at that exact moment? How many were laughing, crying or walking to work? How many were watching like we were? How did each of those actions mess with another?
I appreciated this conversation and how it shifted my perspective in those moments. I was remembered a Jewish proverb that reminds us to place a piece of paper in each of our front pockets. On one we are counseled to write, “I am unique in all the universe,” and on the other, “I am nothing but dust.” The art is to know which piece of paper to fish out when.
I was brought back to Cameron’s initial statement four days later floating down a creek in a small fishing boat, or panga, near Bocas del Toro, Panama. Our captain and guide hailed from the local Nôbe-Buglé tribe. After pointing out caimans and sloths, he added, “and that tree over there is called a devil tree. Some people will go make offerings in front of trees like those to call out the devil to get things that they want — jobs, a girl or money. On Good Friday they wait to make their request and spirits will appear sometimes in the form of a monkey to answer them.”
He had my attention. I have been long fascinated by how trees play a role in cultural practices. In Thailand, you can pray to a tree to save your child from illness or to get a job. If rewarded, you return to the tree and give it gifts. Apparently, tree spirits are feminine as when traveling in the country, I witnessed a number of trees awarded very fancy dresses.
In Crow culture, trees might be adorned with prayer bundles or gifts if prayers are answered as you can see in the included photo.
And, Deidre, how are you going to connect this to leadership?
Harkening back to Cameron’s statement, leadership is all about perspective. For example, how often does your average Westerner walk past a tree without notice? How many of you reading this knew about the potential importance of trees and tree spirits within these cultures? More importantly, how often do I remember that what is standard to some is sacred to others?
Leadership calls for humility. I know well that my personal perspective is not the only one on each situation, yet I need constant reminders. Too often I want to barrel ahead ignoring this fundamental fact.
Like the death example above, what might be a catastrophe for me could be interesting news to another, or have no significance at all. As simple examples, take the cutting down a tree or filling in a wetland. Therefore, as leaders some of our most critical tasks must become sharing, gathering and shifting perspectives.
And so, I am walking into this work week with the mantra, “It’s all about perspective.”