You can’t see the forest for the trees

“In all living things there is a wholeness blindness,” Thomas Merton.

The forest metaphor is a good futurist metaphor because you can’t see the coming future like you can’t see the total forest. It is part of our wholeness blindness.

I think that I shall never see the interconnected wholeness of a treeI think of the tree as nature’s metaphoric gift (maybe my version of “the tree of life”). You can’t see the forest for the trees is a well-known metaphor emphasizing that what we see is not all there is. Although this is well-known, most humans act as if they don’t know it. You can’tsee the forest because much of it is hidden. You can’t even see the whole tree because much of it is hidden, or because you are paying attention to a particular part of the tree. To summarize what we know metaphorically about what we see (and what I have written in detail about):

• What you pay attention to is what you see (the auto-pilot metaphor)

• What you don’t pay attention to is what you don’t see (the six blind men metaphor)

• What is hidden is what you can’t see (the ice berg metaphor)

These are powerful metaphoric examples of what you can’t see; something you might identify with.   

One reason you can’t see the forest is because you are looking at the trees. Another reason is because much of the forest is hidden. “You can’t see the forest for the trees” is telling someone that they are so focused on the details of a situation, that they are not seeing the bigger picture at all. The bigger picture (the entire forest) is probably not possible to see. Much of it is hidden, out of sight. You may also be standing too close, proximity blindness.

“We all suffer from proximity blindness… this inability to see the forest for the trees… You need a bird’s eye view to be able to have a good perspective on a problem  sometimes. When you are too close to something, you may not be able to have the 30000 foot view of things. The outside perspective is often crucial for you to find the truth.”Danny Ozment.

Maybe proximity blindness and wholeness blindness can help explain why you can’t see the forest for the trees. You are too close or too far way. And you only see what you pay attention to. The forest metaphor points out both the dangers of proximity blindness and “wholeness blindness,” the inability to see the whole. 

“You can’t see the forest for the trees” is such a popular metaphor that I think it is useful to refer to. It helps you understand how the way you see things is limited. This gives me an excuse to overuse it. And metaphor is a powerful teacher. 

“It is easier to think about something while thinking about something else, than it isto think about a thing when trying to think about it,”  Erasmus G. Addle

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  1. Marianne says:

    I have always enjoyed the tree metaphor. I can really relate to it.

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