Tree of Life

by Henry Baer-Benson


Yesterday evening, Max and I were running along rio Tomebamba when we reached the El Vergel bridge and decided to rest a moment before heading back. As our heads cleared and our breathing returned to normal we began to talk about life after this year, something that had been encroaching on both of our minds. What started as a quick breather stretched into an hour long conversation about the future and the big decisions that always seem to arrive before we’re ready. We talked about having to choose a course of study, a career, a home, a partner, and the mounting pressure that so many new adults feel to get it right. At this point in my life, the idea of the right choice is so infuriatingly and overwhelmingly ambiguous that it sometimes seems like I’ll never know the answers. Especially when I can’t even decide on a pair of socks in the morning. I remember years ago being so excited about when I would finally get to choose my path. I never imagined that it would be so hard to figure out what I wanted. After our run I kept thinking about this, trying to figure out what had changed.


When I turn my eyes to the future I still see a wealth of possibility. Each opportunity creates a new path and new opportunities for me to follow, like branches of a great tree. What I’ve realized now, however, is that my life can only take one path. That I’ll only ever explore one leaf.

As a young child, my unyielding optimism told me that I could grow up to be anything that I wanted. This was vastly true, but each opportunity has a cost, and in my head I imagined growing up to be everything that I wanted. I dreamed of swinging from limb to limb as an artist, an architect, a pirate. A traveler, finding great adventure in every bough and leaf of the tree of life.

As I got older, however, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” began to have wrong answers. When I turned 8 I couldn’t be a pirate because they were “too mean.” When I turned 12 I couldn’t be an artist because I was “too sloppy.” When I turned 16 I couldn’t be an architect because I would be “too unemployed.” As I lost interest in some dreams and deemed others unrealistic, leaves began turning colors and quietly drifting to the ground. Big decisions became gut wrenchingly daunting because they could strip entire branches, sending even the greenest leaves spiraling into the dirt. When I chose to attend Tufts several branches were left bare, followed by another when I joined 1+4. Choosing a future is painful because in this moment almost anything is possible. I can still see my life branching into the open sky above me and it fills me with a sense of excitement and wonder and possibility. I’m not ready to give that up. I think a part of me never will be.

Living in Ecuador for the past seven months has been a refuge from these big decisions and I’ve mostly been able to ignore the idea of a life after this year. It takes a conscious choice to get on Facetime and reconnect with my life back home, so I’m naturally focused on the here and now. Maybe I’ve started to think about this summer, but definitely nothing past that. I honestly prefer it this way. I’m no closer to figuring out what I want to study, what job I want to get, where I want to live or what kind of partner I want, but I think this year has helped me to accept that I don’t know the answers, and probably won’t be able to figure them out for a long time. I’ve found that when I don’t worry about who I’ll be next year, I become more engaged with my host family, my coworkers and the other fellows. I play at the park with Josué instead of messaging my soccer team. I invite my boss out after work instead of leaving quietly and watching Netflix. I plot out my next mock spot instead of daydreaming about the Boundary Waters.


I want to learn how to bring this attitude home with me and just focus on where I’m at, although I’m afraid that it will be all too easily swept aside as I slide back into my old routine. But I’ll worry about that tomorrow.

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