Editor’s Note: The following column is an edited excerpt from Michelle DeRusha’s new book, “True You: Letting Go of Your False Self to Uncover the Person God Created,” reprinted with permission from Baker Books.
Three years ago on a warm June morning, my husband, our two boys and I met Marsha, a volunteer guide, just inside the front gate of the Portland Japanese Garden. As we followed her across wooden bridges, along pea gravel paths and over stepping stones set into spongy moss, Marsha paused beside a large Japanese maple tree poised regal and elegant like a grand dame on a small hill. Its delicate chartreuse leaves fanned like antique lace over an elaborate network of dark limbs and branches spreading like veins beneath the canopy.
Marsha explained that a particular Japanese gardening technique called “pruning open” was responsible not only for the sculptural appeal of this maple, but also for the uncluttered spaciousness and serenity in the garden as a whole. Pruning open enables an individual tree to flourish by removing complicating elements, simplifying structure and revealing its essence, Marsha explained. Over time, a tree that is pruned open is turned inside out, so to speak, revealing the beautiful design inherent within it.
In the months following our visit to the Portland Japanese Garden, I thought a lot about the practice of pruning open, and I’ve since come to understand it as a beautiful metaphor – one we can look to for guidance in our own lives and along our own spiritual journeys.
The practice of pruning open is not an easy one. In both gardening and in life, it’s a skill that takes discipline, insight and years of trial and error, and in many ways, it goes against the grain. Metaphorically speaking, pruning is the antithesis of contemporary Western culture. It is the path toward smaller, rather than larger; toward quiet, rather than loud; toward slow, rather than fast; toward simple, rather than busy; toward dismantling, rather than building; toward less, rather than more.
Pruning may not be a popular practice, at least according to what our bigger-better-faster-more society values, but it is an essential one, not only for trees, but also for ourselves and particularly for our souls. It is only in moving toward smaller and less – in cutting back in order to open up – that we uncover who we are at the very center of our God-created selves.
The truth is, God’s desire is not for our truest, most authentic selves to be obscured beneath a tangled bramble of false security. Rather, he yearns for us to live like the Japanese maple tree, our true essence revealed and flourishing, our true self front and center, secure and thriving. God yearns for us to live wholeheartedly and truthfully as the unique, beautiful, beloved individuals he created us to be.
As we let go of our false selves, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, layer by layer – as we finally begin to relinquish, open up and allow God to prune us from the outside in – we will grow in ways we never imagined: in our relationships with loved ones; in our connection with and love for our neighbors; in our vocations; in our hearts, minds and souls; and in intimacy with God himself.
Our true self, the person uniquely created by God, is there, deep inside us, hidden beneath layer upon layer of clinging leaves. Like the elegant Japanese maple tree, a spacious place is waiting to be revealed, an exuberant life is waiting to unfurl and blossom.
Pruning open is the way in.