It just stands there.
Quiet, steady and stoic.
The ultimate wallflower.
I rarely notice it. It looks just like thousands of others. Millions, even.
But then the calendar turns.
And autumn’s annual pilgrimage begins once again, delivering the deft touch of Mother Nature’s paintbrush.
The Ohio countryside, her canvas.
The magnificent trees, a spectacular display of her talents.
I forget every year. The breathtaking beauty of it all. But then the sun shines just right—causing fiery reds and oranges and yellows to burst from the green.
And my favorite tree stands out from them all.
It’s neither tall nor short. Neither big nor small. Neither insignificant nor particularly noteworthy.
Not most of the time, anyway.
But then fall happens. Abscission. The death of the phoenix.
Almost every day I see this tree.
And it’s always just a tree.
Only yesterday it was more.
The sunlight danced with it, showcasing vibrant reds and purples as the green slowly concedes that winter marches forth.
Unrivaled beauty in a sea of arboreal competition.
I stopped and stared at it several times.
And that’s when it dawned on me how much that tree was like us.
People like me.
People like you.
Just a Number
My stepdad taught me many wonderful life lessons.
He’s the man who taught me how important wisdom was. Sometimes we humans spend a lot of time focusing on intelligence, wealth, and our eternal pursuit of happiness—whatever that is—and don’t think much about being wise, perhaps at the expense of other things we want.
It’s almost never wrong to err on the side of wisdom.
But he once told me something I wasn’t wise enough to disagree with at the time.
We were discussing my college plans over dinner. He, my mother and I. I was enrolled in a small, Catholic high school. There were just 75 kids in my graduating class. Just under 400 in the entire school.
And I liked it. It’s what I knew. I liked knowing almost everyone. Having almost everyone know me.
But for college, I was thinking about bigger, public universities. My parents wanted me to go to a small, private school.
“At a big school, you’re just a number, Matt,” my stepdad said.
The implication being, it’s hard to succeed. To be somebody. To make a difference.
I only nodded, not necessarily disagreeing.
Of course it’s easier to be a big fish in a small pond.
But I don’t really care about being a big fish.
I want to be a bright light.
And one bright light can illuminate a whole bunch of darkness.
More Than Just a Number
That’s what you are. More than just a number.
And that’s what that person over there is. That person you don’t know and aren’t paying attention to. They’re someone who matters, too.
We’re not just numbers.
But we blend in, though. Just like my favorite tree.
We’re easy to miss, sometimes.
People buzz along in their cars and trucks passing this tree every day. And most of the time it looks just like the rest. Green leaves. Typical. And in the winter, no leaves at all. Hardly worth a second look.
They don’t pay attention. Why would they?
The tree just sits there, contributing silently. Doing its small part to pump oxygen into the air. To support life.
Growing. Maturing. Just a little more every day.
But still, we don’t pay attention.
The bare, leafless tree looks just like the people I pass on my morning commutes in other cars who are paying equally little attention to me.
Just another thing taking up space. In a vast sea of seemingly forgettable things.
There’s nothing remarkable about any of it most of the time.
The tree can even look sad, shrouded in the gray of winter.
But the clocks keep ticking.
The planet keeps spinning and pirouetting around the sun.
And then light. And warmth.
And like that phoenix, it rises from its own ashes, giving birth to color and beauty once again.
And it sits. Fitting in. Looking pretty, but unexceptional. Not calling attention to itself at all.
Only the tree is not unexceptional.
It’s special. And unique.
It’s perfect in its simple, everyman form.
Quiet, steady and stoic.
Waiting patiently for that next moment to shine on another exquisite, future autumn day.
Capturing our awe.
Being more than just a number.
Filling us with gratitude.
And giving us hope.