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Many moons ago, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Film Studies (with a minor in children’s literature) because I enjoyed reading and writing that much. From a teenager, I knew that I wanted to turn writing into a career and always took pride in the amount of books, poems and stories I had read.
So when my publisher posted an assignment to talk about life lessons learned from the The Oak Tree poem, I was intrigued. Intrigued because I somehow had never read it… it slipped under my radar. The Giving Tree, sure… but The Oak Tree, no. And so I did.
The Oak Tree was written by Johnny Ray Ryder Jr. It has inspired many people, including myself, with its words of encouragement and emphasis on resilience. It often appears on support group message boards, as the poem seems to resonate with those dealing with illness, adversity and loss.
I had a tear in my eye after reading it for the first time yesterday… as my aunt passed away unexpectedly just last week and was one of the strongest people I knew. A cancer survivor and devout Catholic, she was filled with conviction – just like The Oak Tree.
A mighty wind blew night and day
It stole the oak tree's leaves away
Then snapped its boughs and pulled its bark
Until the oak was tired and stark
But still the oak tree held its ground
While other trees fell all around
The weary wind gave up and spoke.
How can you still be standing Oak?
The oak tree said, I know that you
Can break each branch of mine in two
Carry every leaf away
Shake my limbs, and make me sway
But I have roots stretched in the earth
Growing stronger since my birth
You'll never touch them, for you see
They are the deepest part of me
Until today, I wasn't sure
Of just how much I could endure
But now I've found, with thanks to you
I'm stronger than I ever knew
Like any piece of literature or poetry, The Oak Tree poem is open to interpretation. Rarely will two people take away the exact same message from what they read. Sure, there may be similarities, but each person will get what they want and need from it.
Much of the act of interpretation is driven by mindset. If our soul is craving guidance or inspiration – a sign, if you will – this will definitely impact the way we react to something we read… or hear or see. So this is what I learned from The Oak Tree poem.
The tree talks about it’s deep roots. Roots of faith and wisdom. These roots are symbolic of the lessons we’ve all learned since childhood. Life lessons about love and loss, healing and suffering, success and failure.
The roots grow stronger when you believe in ourselves and have faith in a better tomorrow. To “water” the soul means to engage in activities that strengthen your mind and improve mental clarity… as well as boost self esteem.
You can take steps to improve your mindset with mediation and mindfulness exercises, both designed to work our “mental core”. You can also practice daily affirmations, prayer and utilize mantras. Self-care activities – such as a massage, yoga or hiking – can also have a powerful effect. Making time to ensure your physical and mental needs are met is key when it comes to being the best version of ourselves.
The poem writes how the wind “stole the oak tree's leaves away… then snapped its boughs and pulled its bark”. Yet, the tree held on, convinced it would survive.
The leaves, limbs and bark were just things. Pieces that didn’t define who the Oak was, or had any effect on its ability to stand.
As humans, we often crave things that we don’t necessarily need. We also have the tendency to hang onto objects and ideas that won’t likely affect us in any significant way when it comes to fighting life’s battles. Battles like disease, loss, anxiety and fear.
For instance, if your idea of the perfect life is a wealthy spouse and giant house… what happens when he loses his job? The income and house may be stripped away, but will that change who you are as a person? Will it change the fact that you still have your health and a support system of family and friends? Or that you are still educated and capable of finding a new way to generate income… an income that may not necessarily need to be what it was, but rather enough for what you need now?
The Oak realized that losing those “things” were not going to tear him apart, or break his spirit… but rather force the tree to be stronger and focus on what matters. Mental determination, clarity and positivity can change your life’s course.
Perhaps the most obvious lesson I took away, as will most people, from The Oak Tree poem is that we have it within each of us to pick ourselves up when we are down. Even if you feel as though you’ve hit rock bottom, you haven’t.
You see, rock bottom is when you’ve lost all hope and the desire to fight. And it’s impossible to lose hope if you stay grounded in your values and tap into your physical and inner strengths. You are stronger than you realize!
We were all born fighters… and life has taught us to be resilient. The very moment you were taken from your mother’s womb, the doctor needed to hear you cry. A baby’s cry is proof that its lungs are functioning properly and she can breathe on her own.
See, you were born fighting for air… and have been fighting ever since. Maybe your battle was learning to read as a child, or having to help support the family when your dad passed away at a young age? Finding a good enough job to pay the bills, or with a bully that teased you mercilessly for years? Or maybe your battle was with cancer?
Conversely, if you are one of the lucky ones who believes your life has been a cake walk up until this point, I’d wager you still faced some challenges along the way. You may just not remember them because you overcame them.
All that matters is that you’re still standing. Each and every fight teaches us a lesson in resilience. It’s not about how big the fight is… but about how big of an effort you put into winning it!
Conquering even the most seemingly insignificant challenges can breed character. Mental and physical strength go hand in hand. If you believe you will be left standing in the end, your body will react and become capable of putting up a real fight.
Johnny Ray Ryder Jr. has managed to capture the demons we all face with his words of encouragement and sheer determination. He taps into the reader’s inner strength, confidence and values in order to make them believe they can survive anything.
Life is not supposed to be easy… that is what makes it worth living. You need to take in all of it, embracing the good and bad. After all, suffering setbacks only to emerge from the shadows they cast over us, is the best way to appreciate how far we’ve come and what matters.
What matters is we’re still here to fight another day. There is no point in worrying about tomorrow because you can’t control tomorrow. What you can control is how you fight today for what you want and truly need from life. Happiness is within everyone’s reach if they stand strong on their journey towards it.
We’d love to hear what lessons you took away from The Oak Tree poem in the comments section below! And for more tips on tapping into your inner strengths, check out this article on prayers for strength and comfort.
Nicole Krause has been writing both personally and professionally for over 20 years. She holds a dual B.A. in English and Film Studies. Her work has appeared in some of the country’s top publications, major news outlets, online publications and blogs. As a happily married (and extremely busy) mother of four… her articles primarily focus on parenting, marriage, family, finance, organization and product reviews.