Pear Trees and Other Delights

"Verb Awakenings" reframe our mindsets to appreciate delight.

by Julia Huebner | 5/19/17 1:30am

This column was featured in the Green Key 2017 Special Issue: "Awakening."

I have never been awakened, at least not in the grand sense of the word.

I have never stumbled upon some grand realization that makes the scrambled pieces of life fit together. I have never had a religious epiphany nor a spiritual discovery. I have never had a struggle that has changed the trajectory of my 19 years. “I once was lost, but now I’m found” is a song verse, not a relatable life experience.

I learned to be assertive, I learned to enjoy my own company, but those peripheral life lessons merit a much-deserved eye-roll. No one needs to read another teenage girl’s public reflection on body positivity nor another white woman’s graceful recognition of her privilege. Lessons inherently seem cheesy, implying a dichotomous shift from ignorance to wisdom or from darkness to light. As my mom still tells me, I am only half-baked: I have seen some light, not the light; I am stronger now but not perfectly strong yet.

Floundering to reach beyond self-righteous life lessons and annoyed by my inability to do so, I did what anyone might do in a moment of doubt: I called my grandmother.

She suggested I write about my pear tree.

There’s an indisputable lesson: Grandma is always right.

On April 28, I had just attended Dave Evan’s lecture “Money or Meaning: A Real Dilemma and the Wrong Problem,” in Cook Auditorium. As I trudged up the stairs from the subterranean lecture hall on a bright Saturday morning, I saw The Tree. It was unlike other trees lining Tuck Drive which were just beginning to bud in the late April warmth. The Tree was already full, spanning 15 feet in every direction. Its branches seemed weighed down with thousands of white blossoms — the kind you see in upscale wedding magazines. I pressed my face into its branches; the velvety flowers tickled my cheeks. I stood underneath, breathed in the beauty and took a mental photograph.

After a few minutes, I decided that The Tree was so magnificent that I had to share it with someone. I thought about standing on a table in Baker library and making an announcement, but I figured I would probably startle my classmates instead of enticing them to join me. I thought about sharing a picture on Facebook and Snapchat, but doing so seemed too impersonal, too contrived. I decided a phone call would do. I tried my best friend, then my mom; both calls went to voicemail. My grandmother, as always, picked up by the second ring. I gushed endlessly about this tree — its flowers, its scent, its fullness. After I finished my description, she diagnosed it as a pear tree. My pear tree.

I learned nothing from The Tree. I left with no takeaway notes nor bullet points by which to live. But in that moment, I was delighted. Delight, as my classmates and I are learning in our Impact Design class, is as ambiguous as it is wonderful. Researchers are still attempting to tease out the psychological and definitional differences between delight and happiness.

The definition is easy for me: delight came from appreciating that random, insignificant pear tree. In that moment, I chose to be awake. I let myself be in awe. I did not stroll by, mindlessly scrolling through my phone. I did not nod because it was the right time to nod or laugh because it was the polite response. I did not experience an awakening; I was awake.

Awakening, when used as a noun, defines a situation that has made you see the light. Awakening, when used as a verb, defines the continual process of shifting between autopilot and alertness. Noun Awakenings are sporadic and externally driven; Verb Awakenings are long-term and internally maintained. Unlike life lessons that can be learned once, Verb Awakenings require constant self-evaluation.

Most importantly, Verb Awakenings allow us to reframe the daily banality of our own headspace.

At 19, life seems relentless. Our mechanized college struggle leads to internships which lead to jobs, but a job leads to … what? Happiness is strung in front of us as a carrot, ever an inch away, while we stumble on our hedonic treadmills. How many points do I need on the final to get above the median? Why isn’t the weekend here yet? If only it were summer. If only I had more money or time or likes on my latest Instagram post. Why am I unhappy?

Stop. Reframe.

At 19, life bursts with opportunity: pear trees and milkshakes and getting stuck in the rain and first dates and socks right out of dryer. These do not lead to anything in the practical sense. Delight and happiness are appreciated in the moment, not engineered to be a reward. So how do we prompt ourselves to switch off autopilot? How do we make room for multiple awakenings every day? And how did we get so damn lucky?