If a Tree Falls in a Forest

Photo Courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli

Photo Courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

We have all heard this question before. It sparks a variety of debates: philosophical, scientific, metaphysical, religious. We dissect the nature of sound waves and air vibrations, and we ask ourselves if something can truly exist without being perceived and interpreted by something else.  

I can’t tell you the number of times I have thought about this question, but only recently did it begin to feel personal. I heard someone say it a couple weeks ago, and my response was immediate: “Of course it does! That tree isn’t making the sound for you or anyone else. That tree is making the sound for itself, and you better believe it can hear it!”

The passion in my answer surprised me, and it took me a few moments to figure out why. Then, it hit me. I was the tree. If my existence required validation from someone else, I had a lot of explaining to do. 

This got me thinking. What does it take to actually be considered successful? Intelligent? Beautiful? Valuable? Can we be these things just because we believe we are, or does someone else need to believe them, too? 

I think of all the writers I know. Some are published, and some aren’t. Some have agents, and some don’t. Some haven’t even finished their first manuscripts, but does this make them any ‘less’ than the ones who have?

(I know I personally had a bit of an existential crisis the day a literary agent sent me my very first rejection letter. I realized I had based my entire identity around the belief that I was a ‘writer,’ and I was terrified there would be nothing left if you took that away from me.)

What about the other standards we impose upon ourselves? Where do we draw the line between self-assurance and delusion? And at the end of the day, are we only worthy if the rest of the world agrees?

I ask, because I have been both in and out, both celebrated and scorned. I have been a wanna-be writer, a published author, a quasi-celebrity and an absolute nobody. I have been rich and poor, a prodigy and a failure. I have been someone’s soul mate, and I have also been the girl someone wasn’t sure they wanted to spend their Thanksgiving with.

I have been all of these things, sometimes at the same time, and the only consistency through it all has been me. 

What does this say about me? About the rest of the world?

I have been the same person this entire time; the only inconsistency has been the timing, the circumstance, and the unique way my energy has played off other people’s energies during their own journeys. So, if I have to sit around and wait for someone else to show up and listen for my tree to come crashing down, I may be forced to remain stagnant for awhile. 

Doesn’t that stagnancy invalidate my strength to just fall down for myself, just because I feel like it? And is the sound I create any less powerful, valid or meaningful if I’m the only one around to hear it?