06/01/2013 03:50 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2013

Cutting Down Trees and Solving Life's Problems

When I was a boy -- I don't know how old, probably about five -- my father and his law partner decided to cut down a large Elm tree that was diseased and in danger of falling on our house. The tree was just on the other side of the driveway from the back of the house where the dining room was located. Being lawyers, they knew very little about cutting down trees. As family oral history tells it, they employed four men to help them -- two to use a two-man crosscut saw and two to pull on the long ropes they borrowed from our small-town's fire department.

The two men with the ropes fastened them around the tree as far up as they could climb. My father and one of the men tugged on one of the ropes, and my father's law partner and the other man tugged on the second rope, pulling the tree away from the house as the other two men sawed. Everything was going well, but just as the tree began to fall, the wind picked up, blowing the tree toward the house. Well, the wind out pulled the men, and the tree crashed into the house.

I was not allowed in the backyard when they were cutting down the tree because it would be too dangerous. Instead, I was eagerly watching from the nearest window. And, of course, I was right there when the tree came crashing through the window. I was not hurt, but I clearly remember the glass crashing all around me.

Fast forward 30 years. I was married, had four children, and we owned our first house. There was a poplar tree only two feet from our house, its roots eroding the foundation. Poplar trees are tall and slender, and I assured my wife that I could manage cutting down the tree. Having heard the story about my father's experience many times at family dinners, she refused even to consider such a notion. Instead, we employed a professional arborist.

I still remember how he and his men did it. They climbed up into the tree and cut off the limbs one by one, dropping each to the ground. Finally, there was nothing left but the main trunk and a few light-weight branches at the top, and they cut the trunk in six and seven foot sections, starting at the top, dropping each to the ground before cutting the next one -- no chance of the tree falling into the house! It took them about two hours to cut down the tree and clean up the remaining mess.

Fast forward again to last week, following a very strong windstorm in St. Louis, where we now live. The storm left a large pine tree leaning at a seventy degree angle toward our house. Again, we called professionals, and they took care of the tree in the same way the other men handled the poplar tree forty years ago.

How professional arborists cut down trees teaches a very valuable lesson for life. As a clergyman, I have no way of knowing how many times someone came to me with a problem seemingly too overwhelming to solve and definitely eroding life. Usually the problem was not really one problem, but a series of closely-related smaller problems that, taken all together, appeared to be one insurmountable obstacle. Time and again, I told of my father's trying to cut down the entire tree and the way the professionals did it one limb at a time.

After telling the story, we approached what had seemed to be a problem too big to solve in a different way; we began to take it apart and clearly identify the many smaller parts. Once we did that, we prioritized the order in which the small parts of the large problem should be handled, and he or she would then begin working through each one -- one at a time.

That "one-at-a-time" business is the key to solving life's problems. We live in a fast age, that is, everyone is impatient and wants things taken care of in a hurry -- fast foods, using the computer's spell-check instead of a dictionary, Googling for information, the rage for texting, on-line educational courses, to mention only a few examples. This fast age tempts us to try solving all the little problems at once. That won't work! Just remember that it usually takes quite a while for a problem to develop into a really big one, and it's going to take even longer to make it go away. You must be patient!

In order to solve the big problems of life, you must do three things in this order: first, identify the smaller parts that make up the large problem; second, prioritize the order in which you will work on solving the smaller problems; and third, work on the smaller problems one at a time, solving one before turning to the next one. I always tell people to picture the men cutting down a tree -- one limb at a time. They never try to cut more than one limb at a time. They cut off one limb and drop it to the ground and then go to the next one. And, finally, when there are no more limbs on the trunk, the main part of the tree is not so big after all and is quite easy to cut in sections, just like the smaller limbs -- one at a time.

If you happen to be facing any grave or weighty problems, difficulties that are getting the better of you and you are at your wits ends, remember how the tree cutters do it -- one limb at a time. I assure you it will work!