If Only

Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.

·        William James


A man planted a garden and he filled it with dozens of flowering plants and trees.

There were dogwood trees and cherry trees, sprays of wisteria, rows of daffodils and mountains of azaleas. The garden was a riot of color and fragrance, still the man was disappointed year after year because the one tree he wanted to see flower produced the buds and no more. For months the man labored, hauling fertilizer, pruning the branches, mulching the base. He spoke to the tree and watered it lovingly. While he cared for the rest of the garden he could never sit back and enjoy it because his anticipation of the great tree was too powerful.

His unhappiness did not go unnoticed among the plants he tended. The rhododendron with its brilliant purple blooms shed petal tears when the man only gave it a cursory nod. The bluebells clanged in discord when he yanked the weeds, but failed to stop and admire them. The roses lifted their faces so that he might inhale their heady fragrance as he passed, but he only muttered about killing the aphids he spotted on their leaves.

"This has to stop," cried the garden gnome that lay on its side after the man had stubbed his toe on it and thus kicked it over. "What is that silly tree he goes on and on about? I have never heard him speak its name." A voice croaked from the toad abode in the shadow of a birch, "That is the If Only tree to which he tends." "Oh dear," said the weeping willow and began to cry fresh tears. "Not one of those. They're always a disappointment."

The If Only tree was known to everyone in the garden as the one plant that took all a gardener had to give and never bloomed in return.

It was said that if a gardener fed it his hopes, his dreams and his fears it would give him his heart's desire some day. But while the tree grew to enormous height and girth its buds withered on the branches. The danger was great. It would inevitably wear the gardener down and when he stopped doting on it the tree would leech the life from the rest of the garden. All would wither and die.

The garden fell silent as the man returned to sit on the marble bench by his favorite tree. He sat by it for hours and spoke and spoke and none had listened before today. Now they all perked up and strained to hear his words. "If only I had a bigger house," he told the tree, "Then I could be happy. If only I had a better car I could take my children to the zoo or to visit the relatives." Then the gardener's wife came into the garden and sat beside her husband and spoke to the tree. "If only I were thin, then I would be happy. If only I were beautiful, then I would have friends."

When the couple left the garden the tree grew another inch and the shadow it cast over the garden made the other plants shiver.

"We have to nip this in the bud," barked the dogwood. "To late for that," snapped the snapdragon. It was Lilly who intervened with a plan to save the garden. "We must talk to the wind," she said. "We must ask it to bring a terrible storm and strike the tree and down it with a bolt of lightening." The garden was aghast. A storm of that magnitude would surely wipe them out. "True," said Lilly. "The storm would likely do us damage, but the If Only will surely kill the gardener as well."

So it was done, and the plants asked the wind to rage, and it did. The garden was decimated. Flowers and trees were strewn in every direction, but to their horror, the If Only tree stood tall as ever.

The man entered the garden and wept. Looking at the ruin, he pictured his beautiful garden. He knew that, while he had tended it, he had not appreciated it. "If Only..." he sighed. The tree shook with laughter. The man jumped back in shock. "Such a foolish man," it laughed. "You still have me."

Then the man heard a small, silvery voice. Lilly, who lay at the base of its trunk, said, "Root it out. It's your only chance. All of the beauty and glory you once sowed will grow back once the If Only tree is dead and gone." The man knew she was right, but the tree suddenly seemed so large that he doubted he could do the job. It was too much work and he was tired and sick at heart.

"Get your wife to come and help you. Call a friend, a brother and neighbor to help you," Lilly pleaded. The man shrugged, "That would be too humiliating," he said. Another voice called from a tangle of plants, the gnome shouted, "More humiliating than being dictated to by a malignant growth? Come on, man, show some spunk! You put your back into building things, growing things, pulling the little weeds so that the garden would grow. Now you have to pull the big one so that it can be revived." Other small voices of the bulbs he had planted called out to him from beneath the soil, "We will come back to you. You must be strong."

So he swallowed his pride and went to fetch his wife and his neighbors and between them they chopped down the If Only tree and dug out the stump and burned it on a great pyre.

The next year the man, his wife, his neighbors and friends all gathered in the garden, among the new sprigs and blooms to erect a sundial where the If Only tree had once stood. They placed it there to remind them that shadows pass and with time all can be green again.

-Lisa Suhay

Lisa is a correspondent for the New York Times and author of the book "Tell Me a Story," a collection of original fables for adults and children. She has a broad range of newspaper work to her credit, from the Gulf War, in Saudi Arabia and in Israel, and has lived aboard a sailboat with her husband while raising their children at sea. She presently resides in Medford, New Jersey, and bylines columns in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Family Circle Magazine and several other publications. Most importantly, Lisa Suhay is a great storyteller. She began her storybook as a way to illustrate ways of handling the difficulties of life's journey without mandating exactly what to do or how to live. Click on these titles to read more from Mrs. Suhay: The Magpie & Chandra's Change.


There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.

·         Napoleon Bonaparte

This week has been one of incomprehensible loss for many. Hour upon hour, I watch television and witness the horror of the assault upon New York, I listen to the commentators speak of the loss of life and property. I listen to pundits and talking heads pour over the incident, and in hindsight they comment on what should have been done to prevent the tragedy. If only. . . and the shadow of these events will live in my memories for many years to come. With this, my life is changed, irrevocably.

What might have been done to stop the bombing of Pearl Harbor? How could the assassinations of John Kennedy or Martin Luther King have been prevented? Where did NASA engineers go wrong with respect to the Challenger disaster? How might the loss of so many lives in the Bhopal, India chemical disaster been avoided? Monday morning quarterbacks ask questions just like that about their favorite team’s performance. I doubt if there is a soul alive who does not have some regrets, a wish that things might have been different in some way. For many, one tragedy, or a series of them, can become the focus of a lifetime of “if only” thinking. And what good can “if only” thinking do, in the end? How can we go back and change things?

While I consider the headlines of today, I may find myself fearful of what tomorrow will bring, too. American citizens often take for granted the wealth of opportunities and blessings that citizens of other nations would fight and die for, given the chance. Yet, deep down in our national consciousness, Americans know the extent of these blessings, and we (collectively but generally speaking) certainly don’t appreciate having that worldly status-quo lifestyle disturbed by any event or person. Such steady resolve is but one form of national patriotism.

In the process of grasping the tragic losses of this or any other incident, or to comprehend the profound spiritual and economic poverty that others may be living in, I remind myself that I must be grateful for the many ways in which my life is abundant. Worrying over the result of the acts of a few radical fundamentalists may cause me to focus on what may be lacking in my life in the unknowable future, rather than acknowledging and appreciating what continues to be abundant right now. It is tremendously difficult to see a lesson, here. But there is one, I know it. Such loss, so many tears, so much emotion – yet, at the same time, an opportunity for social growth and cooperation on a scale never before seen in human history. What shall be done? What can I do? If only things would change for the better. . . where shall I start? Should I wait for “if only” conditions to come about in order to truly live today?

If only this terrible thing had not happened. . . If only those terrorists could be rooted out, and eliminated. . . If only my family, my comfortable American lifestyle and my economic situation could be secure. . . If only those bad guys could see things the way I see them. . . If only the world would learn to love instead of fear. . . If only. . .

No, “if only” thinking is not the answer. Rather, I must do what I can, when I can, and where I can to make things better, not just for me but for those around me; to strive to do the very best I can, always; to strive to be considerate, tolerant, compassionate and understanding of myself and others, always; to tend to my garden of life - my personal and spiritual stewardship - and strive to make it bloom, and to remove - branch and root - what is not productive in my life, giving that which is productive a chance to thrive; and above all, to express gratitude for the magnificent abundance in my life, and for the opportunity to love, to live, and to learn and grow – just as those few souls did when they had the chance to telephone from a jet which was about to crash into the World Trade Center. It is a tragic but important lesson of what, in the very end, was worth expressing to someone else in those final, terrible moments – love and gratitude. No act of barbarian terrorists can overshadow this quiet but powerful example of those consigned to a fate so very incomprehensible by its own nature and its unthinkable execution. And no act of mine, or of my nation's, can exact just payment for the debt we owe to those who have sacrificed their lives.

I can honor the passing of those souls who departed that awful day. I can let my Light shine as they did, as even the Qu’ran encourages me to do. Who knows what effect an honest and upright example might have as it spreads, from one to another, among us. It will make a difference. It starts with me. I can do no more; I must strive to do no less.

Be not afraid. The shadows will pass, and the Light will return, and spirit will conquer all, in due time.


email: Michael@N-Spire.com

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