The old idiom about not being able to see the forest for the trees is a common saying refering to people or organizations not being able to see the big picture due to too much focus on details is apt. This has happened to me when painting a room in the house. If I want to coat the walls in one day but spend most of the time mixing the paint and fussing over the type of brushes and rollers, the job will not be finished on time.
Meantime, I want to turn that idiom inside out today. What about not being able to see the trees for the forest? Using the room painting analogy again, the rooms in my little house were hastily painted by the contractor who prepared the house for the next occupant. The walls, ceilings, doors, trim, light switches, light fixtures, and electrical outlets were covered in flat white paint. The rooms looked as if the painter used a spray gun to apply the paint.
I received permission from the landlord to repaint the rooms to make them more homey. In each room, I removed the switch plates and outlet covers, then used masking tape to cover frames and trim work. I selected a scrubbable semi-gloss off-white then applied it with a roller and nice-quality brush. When the paint was dry, I replaced the caked over switches, outlets, switch plates, and outlet covers with new ones. As time permitted in the future, I repainted the doors and window frames in a complimentary neutral, semi-gloss color. I kept the ceilings as they were.
Simply doing these basic tasks more carefully resulted in better looking rooms. Paying more attention to details gave the rooms a more professional, balanced appearance. Using the inside out analogy, I could see the trees in the forest. After all, the forest consists of individual trees.
“All generalizations are false, including this one.”–Mark Twain
It is easy and tempting to stereotype people into categories for easy mental reference. However doing so is unfair to individuals and inaccurate as a whole. To claim that all Republicans are theocratic authoritarians, or that all English people are uptight with stiff, upper lips is borderline slanderous. It is unwise to paint an entire demographic with a broad brush based on the behavior of the group’s leaders or a minority of the population. Demographic behavior is only a rough approximation of social expectations. Individuals of particular demographic groups exhibit more nuanced behavior and beliefs. We discover this fact when we communicate with them on a deeper level.
It’s interesting how so many people make judgments based upon our personality traits and how we look. We have been painted with the broad brush of stereotyping in an effort to dehumanize each other. I’m LGBTQ, so a lot of people believe I’m supposed to behave a certain way, harbor certain opinions, and fly my freak flag high. After folks get to know me, they’ll likely discover that I do not fit into conventional, socially defined stereotypes about gay people. Take any minority group or demographic, and you’ll notice there are stereotypes and prejudices about all of them.
It’s wise to be suspicious and skeptical of generalizations. They cloud our judgement and make it more difficult to become acquainted with particular individuals. It behooves us to remember the inaccuracy of generalizations in today’s hyper-polarized society.
Economics, political science, theology, and so forth, concern themselves primarily with empirical and theoretical generalizations about the behavior of demographics, institutions, nations, and other general fields. Most, but not all, academic research operates this way. While statistical findings provide a rough idea about certain types of people, they do not tell us much about individuals within categories. To understand the individual we must turn focus away from the forest and onto the tree. Failing to do so, will negatively affect our behavior and thoughts about trees.
Contemplating a tree within the forest, helps us understand how the tree survives and flourishes. Seeing each member of a particular human group as an individual who has specific desires, needs, and dreams is the first step towards choosing mindfulness and kindness as modus operandi in our interpersonal relationships.
It’s good to remember to see the forest and the trees are interdependent and that the forest would not exist without the trees.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes actress, comedianne, producer, singer, and writer, Rachel Bloom. “I feel like a lot of serious music lives in generalizations–‘Love is a flower’, ‘The sky is so dark’–but comedy lives in specifics.”