Perhaps you have, like me, found yourself from time to time feeling trapped in an unsatisfying version of your life that doesn’t look at all like what you imagined your life to be. You know, deep down, there’s a “real life” to be lived. But it seems to elude you.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s amazing short story “Leaf, by Niggle” a small, humble artist named Niggle lives alone in a world that doesn’t really value his work; despite this, Niggle has an inner desire to create something beautiful, so he perseveres in his artwork. All of his time is consumed in working on his masterpiece, in his studio. It is a giant, detailed landscape centered around a large tree. The masterpiece originally began as a small leaf, but the piece of art kept growing and filling out until it seemed to become a world unto itself.
While Niggle is slaving away over this tree, his neighbor, Parish, routinely asks him for help with various things, including his wife’s sickness, which continually interrupts Niggle’s work and thought process, but Niggle does these acts of service anyway.
One day, men appear at Niggle’s door, telling him that it’s time to go on a journey. Niggle realizes that he hasn’t prepared for the journey, but he is whisked away anyway. As a result of his unpreparedness, he finds himself at “the Workhouse,” a sort of modern-day prison where he must perform various menial tasks and duties every day. All this time, he’s not working on his art. In fact, in his absence, the masterpiece is nearly destroyed, used as roofing material. Only a leaf remains.
Once he’s allowed to leave “the Workhouse,” he journeys to a lush, beautiful land. There he finds his Tree, the piece of art he had worked so hard to create with paint, now in real life. Ecstatic, Niggle begins to mold the rest of the landscape around the area, working day after day to create something beautiful from the natural raw material of the land. His neighbor, Parish, eventually joins him, and the two collaborate to create a beautiful land. After a while, Niggle walks to the far borders of the land, where he discovers that its name is “Niggle’s Country;” he then follows the guide to the farther realm of the Mountains.
Back in Niggle’s hometown, the political leaders and dignitaries discuss his departure, noting that he didn’t seem to be of much use to society. The Voices, guides of sorts for Niggle, by contrast, speak highly of the land Niggle shaped before his journey into the mountains, joyfully recounting the new name some have called the land: Niggle’s Parish. (story summary credits here)
This story haunts and yet lights me up. Here is Niggle, being forced to let go of the idea of a thing, kicking and screaming even, only to discover he is being led to the real thing. This is a gorgeous metaphor for where God is trying to lead us.
Perhaps it is in the doing of the things we dream of — getting up close and trying, that we find the truest and most beautiful version of the ideal life we think we want. Not perfect. Hard even. Can you imagine all the cuts on Niggle’s hands? The sweat and cursing and losses that he endured as he shaped the landscape? But even then, the sterile environment of his art studio could never hold a candle to the real landscape he was creating now.
It is possible in our world today to live an entirely digital life — rarely if ever interacting with people in the flesh. You can sit in your house and have all your food and necessities delivered. You could even spend all your time thinking about, writing about, posting about, wonderful truths. Yet that will never be the real, full thing. It cannot be. It has become perhaps more important than ever that we get out into the real forest of our dreams and away from the art studio of our ideals.
It will be messy. Hard. But embrace what is. Walk the path. See and live in the real thing, up close. The tree you are painting in the studio of your digital life will never be as beautiful as the fullness of the tree you climb. Whose fruit you enjoy. Whose shade you sit under with friends as you laugh and cry and embrace. There you will find the life that is truly life.