My Old Tree and Lessons of Untold Stories

My Old Tree and Lessons of Untold Stories

I am the proud owner of an old tree.

The tree lives on our front lawn, at a proper distance from our house. Close enough to protect us. Far enough not to impose. There are seven old trees on our property, but this one, the only one at the entrance to the place we call home, is special.

I’ve never owned an old tree until now. The transplanted trees had no deep roots in the Winnipeg neighbourhood where we owned our last home. They had the visible story of a tree, but beyond that, they had nothing to tell. When winter came, they had little to sustain themselves. And when the spring came and good times rolled again, they faded into obscurity and eventually were replaced by other transplanted trees.

The solid tree at the front of my new home tells a different story. It towers over grass and shrubs and casts a protective shadow. With branches that rise past the roof of our two-story house and roots that run deep and unseen, my sentinel tree tells a story of what it means to be rooted in things that are untold.

Defining "Untold"

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Maya Angelou

By untold, I mean the things that are never talked about, recounted or disclosed. In my work with narrative and mindfulness, untold is the wisdom that many parts of ourselves are never fully experienced or explored. Like my favourite old tree, with its deep and unseen roots, we each have stories that we tend not to talk about and experiences we would prefer to turn away from and forget. These are our stories of fear, shame, struggle, loss of a loved one, and even loss of self.

In a rush to bury the untold, we forget that each instance of fear, regret, and failure reflects our resilience, bravery, and triumph. We agonize over the pain of our stories and forget that the pain teaches us how to be open, rise up, and flourish. These untold stories of discomfort and disruption are as much a part of our growth as the stories of wins and celebrations that we willingly tell. Censoring our untold stories is an injustice we create for ourselves.

Notice the Old Tree

Imagine the old-growth ‘mother tree’ with its verdant leaves and thick branches that spread far and wide. Notice that its roots run as wide and deep as the branches spread out above. Could you see yourself and your stories as this mother tree's branches and roots?

Old trees live as long as they do because they constantly work beneath the surface. The work happens out of sight and away from our seasonal attention. Most people celebrate the surface product of shade and fruit while the unseen, messy work of sustenance is taken for granted.

But what if we celebrated the untold as much as what is told? What if we, like trees, disregard the human constructs of beauty, timeliness, achievement, and decency and simply be? As I write this, I am watching my tree just being what it is. Some branches have grown, and some have faded, but it still sits in the rootedness of its told and untold stories. Could we all be like old trees and live intentionally in all our stories?

My Untold Story 

Our human roots are our most profound, vulnerable, and compassionate stories. Whether we share them or not, our stories drive and sustain us, shape the stories of those around us and communicate the lived experiences we carry. From how we process our thoughts and emotions to managing our conflicts and stressors, we constantly tell and listen to stories about ourselves, our relationships with others, and our place in the world.

Untold stories like anxiety, mental health worries, identity crises, failure, grief, and burnout are hardly ever expressed, but they often become the overriding narratives that shape our sense of self. Without the right kind of attention, these stories eat away who we are until we become a shadow of ourselves, feeling too tired, stressed out, flawed, and broken to remember our purpose.

Yet, it is in our untold stories that we find our power, strengths, and ability to heal. Facing and understanding our untold stories is integral to finding and maintaining better mental and emotional well-being.

For example, here's my told story:

“I have a Ph.D. in Peace and Conflict Studies; I am a mother of two, an author, and an educator. Before I became an academic and intercultural educator, I was a military officer and then a workplace health and safety professional. I am the planner and organizer. The strategist. The 'smart-one' in the family. The problem solver. The overachiever.”

You may be familiar with this story from my website bio. This told story is my vibrant branches and fruits. They are what the outside world sees, acknowledges, and perhaps appreciates about me.

Now here is my untold story:

“I spent years ignoring my depleted mental and emotional energy. I worked extremely hard to prove my 'told' stories. Eventually, I ended up in crisis – suicidal, with major depression and anxiety disorders. And while I received effective care from my clinical and counselling team during my time of deep crisis, I felt overwhelmed, alone, and afraid about what my next steps would be once my health began to stabilize.”

These are my unseen roots that push deep into the ground. They would never be known, talked about, or acknowledged in the way that my fruits and branches would be seen and celebrated. Yet they are there. And it was only when I began to see and appreciate these stories for myself that I began to flourish.

For instance, to cope with my anxiety and depression, I began to write stories. It started as journaling and then evolved into collecting other people's lived experiences of conflict, mental health, and burnout and then retelling those stories to highlight the things we have been conditioned not to talk about because they were too small, too insignificant or too emotional. Those stories grew into lessons and conversations - the kind that can only come when you gather with a small and trustworthy community to learn, share, and mindfully reflect. This is how the Untold Stories Studio began, and my work is now a new, more fulfilling lived experience of connection, wholeness and humanization.

Showing Up, Again

The power to rediscover and reinvent ourselves comes from our untold stories. So why is it so hard to attend to them? Maintaining only one side of our story takes much physical, mental, and emotional energy. If you are a woman, a person of colour, a working parent, a new immigrant, or a new citizen, changing jobs or just trying to fit in, you know what I am talking about. It takes an incredible amount of energy to live a told story that looks polished and expected on the outside but is draining and feels unsustainable within. 

This is why so many of us feel like imposters in our own lives. We exist daily in our feeling of ghostliness. Not belonging in our skin, unable to see ourselves, and not even sure if others see us. Are we destined to live like this? Is fracture or failure our only option? I am writing this story today, so clearly, there are other choices that the world of structures and expectations did not tell us about.

Taking a lesson from my trusted old tree, I chose to make space for my told and untold stories. Through practice, I am learning that my untold stories are where my strengths, resilience, and capacity for healing and well-being lie. My untold stories are my roots. They keep me grounded and growing. They are constant and connecting. Everything that flows as branches and fruits comes from my deep-rooted stories. Dismember a limb, and the core of my story only grows, becomes more established, and makes me stronger.

When I acknowledge all my stories, I claim my authentic self without apology or expectation of external validation. I can do all this because by exploring my untold stories, I discovered that I am a Survivor, Teacher, Witness, Ally, and Advocate. I remind myself that I am more than a told story of roles, expectations, and expertise; this is how it should be.

Do you see what I mean about the power of our stories? Now tell me, what is your untold story?