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When to Leave: Lessons from Nature Embracing Change for Self-Preservation

Once a friend and I were discussing a friendship she was contemplating ending. My friend really wanted to end the friendship, but was second guessing herself and was racked with guilt because the person really hadn't slighted her. It's easy to set boundaries and end situations when the lines are crossed, but how do you sever ties when the lines are blurred? No wrong had especially been done, there wasn’t a big blow up, my friend simply felt she and her friend were growing apart.

As we talked, I referenced the adage “To everything there is a season". My advice was something along the lines of: Everything happens in cycles, there inevitably will be highs and lows. There's not always fruit on the tree. Maybe their relationship will come back around.

I used the metaphor of autumn and spring to illustrate how sometimes, you have to shed leaves for a time, but they can always come back in spring. If the friendship had to be put on the backburner, it doesn't have to be forever.

Being from Florida, an evergreen state, I wasn’t too familiar with the process leaves falling off and not wanting to misspeak, I looked up the process of leaves falling. To my surprise the metaphor was even more relevant. I had been under the premise that leaves fell off because the tree couldn't support them but they come back in the spring when the tree is stronger.

The process of leaves falling off, abscission, isn’t passive at all. In my mind, the trees got so weak from the lack of resources that the leaves fell off, but when spring comes around again, it can grow new leaves with the replenished resources. WRONG. While the end result is the same, the process is not. Trees and plants release specialized cells that prime the leaves to fall.

Maybe all of your friendships are golden. Are there other areas of your life in which you should practice abscission? Are you hitting a glass ceiling at work? Are you tired of your hometown? Feeling alienated from your community? Found yourself self-sabotaging? The more I learned about abscission, the more accurate I found the metaphor to be. Let's take a look at how abscission can help you.

Why does the plant abscise it's leaves?

Self-preservation, adaptation, and reproduction. When plants are in unfavorable conditions they shed leaves to use less energy and to redirect the energy they would have used for the leaves to . Shedding leaves is also a means of self-preservation. If a leaf is diseased (read toxic), it could poison the entire plant. Instead of letting one bad apple spoil the bunch (pun intended) the plant will get rid of the damaged part.

Abscission also allows for adaptation. When the damaged plant part is removed, it provides the opportunity for a better alternative to grow in its place. When your situation has become detrimental, you must let go for the sake of personal well-being.

Even the color change of the leaves is real:

Change doesn't just happen overnight. Abscission actually comes in stages. Many of which can be signaled by the color of the leaves.

As we all learned in school chlorophyll is the chemical responsible for the green color in plants. Chlorophyll is closely linked to photosynthesis, the process by which trees convert sunlight into energy vital for their growth. Green leaves are indicative of growth as they are particularly efficient at this process. During the spring and summer months, trees intentionally load themselves with green leaves to maximize energy production.

If we want to apply this stage to the circumstance/relationship you are pondering, you could look at this as winning together. This is a mutually beneficial situation for the tree as well as the leaves. It’s all good.

As autumn approaches, trees have amassed stores of energy to sustain them through the cold months (even trees knows that change is inevitable). As days get shorter and resources aren’t as accessible, the production of chlorophyll diminishes. Now that the chlorophyll isn’t making the leaves green, you can see the another pigment called carotene. While carotenes are always present, they aren't always visible because it is overpowered by green. Carotenes produce a yellow hue and protect the tree from sun damage while also absorbing UV light that green leaves can’t. There are even more chemicals that trigger different processes that you can read about here.

If you are wondering about why leaves turn red, I'm not a botanist and can only stretch this metaphor so far. A quick synopsis is red leaves are caused by anthocyanins. Anthocyanins aren't present in all deciduous trees, but can sometimes show up when there is sugar trapped in the leaves. Anthocyanins act as an additional sunblock for the tree when there is too much UV light.

How to apply this philosophy

With what we have just covered, I want you to consider again the situation that you are facing. 'To Everything is a season' is such a beautiful metaphor to compare your life. As the seasons change and the leaves change color, you can see who has been there or what they have down for you when everything was ‘green’. In times of scarcity, your ‘leaves’ adjust themselves to do what is best for you.

Despite all this, sometimes it will be winter. In winter, the tree has to make a choice between its roots, trunks, and branches. The great thing about this metaphor is you can apply in broadly or specifically. The tree could represent anything from you as an individual, to you and your family, or even your goals or values. The leaves could be loved ones, jobs, or your community.

If you have ever felt hesitant to put yourself first or let go of something that no longer serves you, this is a message for you. Whether those "leaves" represent relationships, habits, jobs, or commitments, if they threaten your well-being, it's crucial to take a proactive stance. It may not be easy, but it doesn’t have to be permanent.

Shedding leaves can be a scary process, but if this blog shows you anything, it’s that these changes must be proactive. When the circumstances you find yourself in change, you must adjust. If you find yourself in a season of scarcity, you must take the steps to ‘get lean’ and make it through to Spring.

Platonic friendships are tricky to navigate. You don't have the expectation of monogamy of romantic relationship. You don't have the inserverablility of family ties, so what do you do when you don't want to be friends? My friend felt like she had outgrown this particular relationship, but was hesitant to end one of her longest friendships when her friend hadn't done anything that 'warranted' ending the friendship.

Maybe your situation isn't just an interpersonal relationship. Maybe you have been struggling with your career, religion, or location. Maybe walking away would make you feel like a quitter and you would rather stay to see if things will get better. That's okay too, I'm sure that when you are truly ready for your situation to change that it will. Why? Because you will do what you need to do.

Remember, even the trees, which seem inanimate, take note of the changing seasons and are proactive in their own survival. Prioritizing your survival is not selfish. As you navigate the changing seasons of your life, don't hesitate to schedule your own leaf-shedding moments.

What are some other ways that abscission and self-preservation can be compared?

(Parting note: after you read this article, go back and listen to Stevie Wonder’s Classic Never Dreamed you’d leave in summer. It’s always been a banger, but it hits a little different after you have considered this)

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