In the workshops I facilitate on journaling, memoir writing, stress management, caregiver support, and ethical-will creation, one particular exercise resonates quite deeply with participants. Based on the organic structure of a tree (which is a great metaphor for life itself), the activity is a fun and revealing way to explore the influences and inspirations in one’s life and how they are transformed into meaningful passions and productive actions. I call it Roots, Shoots, and Fruits.
Here’s how to do the exercise:
- On a piece of paper, draw the trunk of a tree. The trunk represents you.
- Now think about the people, experiences, and things that influence and/or nurture you in your life. For example, your faith, family members, and friends each might be a source of support. Perhaps you are greatly influenced by your experiences of travel, work, periods of crisis, or time in the military. You get the idea. Downward from the base of the trunk, draw and label a root that represents each such aspect in your life.
- Next, consider your passions and actions. Toward what activities do you direct your energies and spend your time? For example, you might focus some of your energy on volunteer work. And it’s very likely that you spend time doing things for and/or with your partner and/or children. You might also enjoy a particular hobby or play a certain sport. Each of these channels of your energy is a “shoot,” or branch, of your tree. Upward from the top part of the trunk, draw these shoots and label each one accordingly.
- Finally, look at each shoot on your tree. Ask yourself: “In what particular way am I living out this passion?” or “What specifically am I contributing to the world as a result of this effort?” In other words, what is the “fruit” of each labor? For example, if volunteering is one of your shoots, a fruit might be “tutoring a child,” “working at the food bank,” or “making quilts for shut-ins.” At the end of each shoot, draw and label one or more fruits that describe the results or end-products of your actions.
By now you may realize that a root (such as “my partner”) can also be a shoot. Or a shoot (such as “photography”) may also be a root because the activity nurtures you. Or a fruit (your child) can be a root because of the love he or she provides in your life. That’s great. It indicates full-circle aspects to your life.
As I said, this exercise is always a hit with my workshop participants. It provides a way for them to take stock of their lives and to recognize and appreciate the connections that help define who they are in the world. But the exercise has an additional benefit, one that has to do with proportion and balance.
Some people have greater difficulty identifying their roots rather than their shoots/fruits. They are clearly able to name their passions as well as the many things that they do. But they can’t seem to cite specific people or events or values that provide stability and inspiration in their lives. For others, it’s just the opposite. They have no trouble acknowledging the influences in their lives, but they aren’t clear about the ways in which they contribute to the world through their actions or gifts.
Another interesting effect occurs when someone recognizes a root, shoot, or fruit that has been withering for some time due to lack of attention or appreciation, and he or she resolves to invest more time and energy into nurturing that aspect back to life.
Over the years, I’ve done this exercise in many workshops with participants of all ages. What is particularly remarkable is how much easier this activity tends to be for older adults than for young adults and middle-agers. Perhaps it’s because of the greater perspective elders have about their own lives and the longer amount of time they’ve had to consider this. And the trees of elders who are not isolated or depressed tend to be balanced between downward and upward entries.
I’ve noticed, too, that the trees of young adults often have more roots than shoots/fruits. This is to be expected, since they are still evolving as individuals and discovering the ways they can contribute to the world. Middle-age adults, on the other hand, sometimes have more top-heavy trees. They can label many shoots and fruits, but they tend to lose awareness of their roots, influences, and sources of support. And maybe that’s a symptom of the drive to achieve that often preoccupies people in mid-career.
But here’s what I’ve found most valuable about introducing my participants to Roots, Shoots, and Fruits. Since I began noticing these generational differences, I have encouraged my students to take this exercise beyond the classroom and do it again with family members of different ages. How, for example, might grandparents help their grandchildren to identify their gifts? How might they help their middle-age children restore themselves by tapping into their root influences? And how might grandkids and their parents better appreciate and aspire to grow the sturdier, more balanced tree of an engaged elder? And how different might a person’s own tree look as he or she repeats the exercise from time to time throughout life?
Try this exercise, and pay attention to what it teaches you about yourself. I hope you’ll agree that if more of us spend time thinking about our Roots, Shoots, and Fruits –– and encourage others to do the same –– we will begin to cultivate a lush new forest of personal and social growth.