The title of this post is also the tagline for the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California, which I recently had the privilege of visiting. When I showed my friends pictures of the bristlecones, at first they had a hard time understanding the appeal of my trip. What they saw were scrubby, uneven, twisty, even scraggly-looking trees. But when I explained to them why I loved these trees — and what that has to do with my son with type 1 diabetes — they got it.
First of all, I actually think these trees look awesome. At first glance, you see the scrubbiness. But when you get closer, you see the vibrant color and texture variations on the trunks and the wildness of the branches… they’re actually stunning.
But looks are only a small part of their majesty. They’re famous because they’re one of the oldest living things on the whole planet. As the park brochure describes, when the pyramids were being built, some of these trees were already 1,000 years old!
So what is the secret of how they’ve managed to live and thrive for so long? It turns out that they grow in one of the most difficult environments possible for trees. They’re at a super-high elevation. They’re in an arid place with sandy soil. The winds are really strong (which is what gives the trees their twisty look). Most other trees simply couldn’t hack the environment here. As a result, the bristlecones have very little competition! Because the soil is so poor and rain is so scarce, they grow very slowly. And because of this, their bark is very hard and therefore very insect-resistant. All these factors combine to create these marvelous beauties that have outlived just about everything.
I love to think about the bristlecone as a metaphor for a life with type 1 diabetes. The hand that our kids have been dealt doesn’t always seem to be a fortunate one, much like the hand dealt to the bristlecone pines. Thanks to medical advances, our kids can do all the things that any child can do, but they aren’t always done easily. Everything takes a little more effort, more resources, more strain. They have to endure more than any child really should. They get used to pokes and sticks that cause tears in plenty of other kids. They must relentlessly keep track of what they eat, and before they join in on any playground games, they need to be mindful of where their blood sugar is. Their “growing conditions,” much like the bristlecones’, seem difficult indeed.
And so while I would never wish type 1 diabetes on any child, it’s these hardships that can combine to make something beautiful out of the life of a child with diabetes. Some of the lovely things I’ve seen growing out from the adversity of type 1 include a deeper sense of empathy and compassion for kids with disabilities and medical conditions. I see confidence when a difficult skill is mastered or when obstacles are encountered and overcome. I see wonderful habits that would be a boon to any person deeply ingrained in kids with type 1, including a reverence for exercise and an understanding of the importance of healthy food.
I see in my child with type 1 diabetes a life of adversity. As Shakespeare penned (and the signage at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest acknowledges), “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” The tough conditions themselves are not uniquely responsible for the bristlecones’ beauty and long life. Instead, the conditions are poor, but it is the bristlecones that rise to the meet the challenge, and as they struggle, their beauty is both made and manifested. Our kids are already innately strong. That the adversity they face in type 1 diabetes shapes them in beautiful ways is part of the miracle of it all.
Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring. Jen and Kim are real moms of kids with type 1 diabetes and have been compensated for their contributions to this site.