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Recently our family spent the weekend in a cabin in the woods of Hocking Hills in south-central Ohio. As we hiked through the 150-foot-deep gorge that houses Old Man’s Cave, we came across a massive tree. Actually, it was a pair of trees, growing closely together. The height of the trees was enormous, so much so that the only way to capture their entirety was to use the panorama feature on my phone’s camera. They were so tall that to an observer standing on the surface away from the gorge, they would’ve appeared as normally tall trees … nevermind that they had to grow some 75-100 feet just to reach the surface.

What was most striking about these trees, however, was their base. For all the majesty of these trees’ reach into the sky out of the gorge, the most impressive thing about them was that they grew to any height at all because of where they got their start: on a rock. The enormity of these trees growing out of their rocky start was a compelling sight, and a reminder:

You don’t have to be limited by where you started.

Too often in our culture we are told that the fortuitous advantages and tragic disadvantages of the circumstances of one’s birth play a disproportionately heavy role in the shape of one’s life. We tend to look at origins and prejudge future success and failure … and we also tend to look at a person’s current situation and judge what the beginnings of their story must have been like.

My first job assignment as a prosecutor coming out of law school was representing the county child welfare agency in its efforts to intervene on behalf of abused, neglected, or otherwise dependent children. I will never forget one hearing in which a public defender was representing a mother whose addictions and struggles had resulted in her kids being placed into foster care. In the heat of the legal arguments over what the agency was requiring the mother to do in order to be reunited with her kids, the public defender lashed out at me: “It’s easy for you, sitting there as a lawyer in your nice suit! You have no idea what it’s like to be poor and struggle!”

Taken aback, my emotions pushed me to respond before my brand new legal brain could stop me: “You don’t know me! You don’t know where I come from! Yeah, you see me as a lawyer in a suit now, but you don’t know the road I had to take to get here.” What that public defender had seen was the top of my tree; she didn’t have a clue about the rocks where I had started. She didn’t know that my childhood was largely defined by the dynamics of drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and domestic violence. She didn’t know that I knew what it was like to have to put items back at the grocery store because they weren’t eligible for purchase with food stamps. Nor did she know that while the suit I was wearing in court was nice and new, my first ever suit jacket was a thrift store purchase for my 6th grade graduation. (I would’ve gladly repeated 6th grade instead of wearing that brown corduroy jacket with elbow patches if I had been given the choice.)

The temptation is to believe that the circumstances of one’s roots dictate the limitations of one’s tree. That just isn’t the case. The critical factor in life isn’t where the seed of your beginnings originally fell; it is simply that you grew and kept growing, on whatever soil or boulder you happen to have been placed. Instead, aim for the air beyond the rim of the gorge, and grow to a place that passers-by see your height and wrongfully conclude that you must have had roots in the best of soil.

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