This idiomatic phrase relates to one who does not understand or appreciate a larger situation, or problem because they are considering only a few parts of it. If you can’t see the forest for the trees, you are too focused on small details or parts and so you are missing something more important; you fail to understand the situation as a whole: You are missing the big picture. Considering the trees as individual issues one could have on their shelf, and the forest as the collection of issues and questions, as Mormons, we’re used to dismissing that there is a forest and even that there are trees. We are encouraged to shelve our questions in hopes that they will be resolved at some future date by having more information available due to increased maturity or revelation. The problem with putting issues on a shelf and trying to carry on is that eventually, the shelf becomes overloaded and breaks. This is because we’ve been ignoring the forest and in many instances the trees too. There are issues and the church doesn’t want members to give the issues attention. They encourage us to doubt our doubts.
Can’t See the Forest for the Trees
Can’t see the forest for the trees
The exact origin of the phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees” is unknown, but it is believed to have originated in Europe, possibly in Germany or the Netherlands. The earliest known usage of a similar phrase was in a 1546 book called “Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies” by English author John Heywood, who wrote, “Ye can not see the wood for trees.” The phrase gained popularity over time and has been used in various forms and translations in many languages, including French, Spanish, and Italian. It is often used to describe situations where people become so focused on small details or individual problems that they lose sight of the larger context or picture.
Today, the phrase is a common idiom in English and is used in a variety of contexts to describe situations where people become too narrowly focused on individual aspects and forget to consider the broader perspective. It is a self-explanatory illustrative phrase: imagine you’re walking through a big forest and looking at each tree one by one. You examine each tree and appreciate every little detail. In focusing so much on each tree, you forget to look up (or zoom out) and see how massive and beautiful the whole forest is. We can zoom in on individual trees, but let’s not forget to see the whole forest as well.
This can relate to someone going through a faith transition or deconstructing their faith in God. On one hand, we might focus so much on individual beliefs or doctrines that we disagree with, and end up forgetting about the big picture of their relationship with God or the positive aspects of faith. But on the other hand, when someone becomes an unbeliever, they have typically gone through a process of examining their beliefs by questioning each of them. In this process, they may have come to the realization that their previous beliefs were based on individual details, such as religious doctrines or experiences, without considering the larger picture of their beliefs and worldview.
By “seeing the forest for the trees,” an ex-Mormon steps back and takes a broader view of the world and his/her place in it. They may see that their previous beliefs were narrow and limited and that there are many different perspectives and ways of understanding the world that do not require a belief in the church or sometimes even in God. It is the process of stepping back and taking a broader view of one’s beliefs and worldview. Sometimes stepping back like this makes us realize that it’s not what we were taught it was. The “shelf” may break in this case and leave us feeling lost, betrayed, and even groundlessness. This feeling and spinning can last a while, but it is comforting to know that things do get better. While not everyone has the same experience or reasoning behind their faith journey, each person’s journey is unique and valid.
It is important to step back and look at the bigger picture and understand how each individual belief and practice fits into the larger context of faith and spirituality. This can help someone find a new perspective and understanding of their faith, maybe even strengthen their connection with God in new and different ways, or even help them to outgrow their faith as is the case of Dumbo and his magic feather.
In the context of the Mormon religion, the concept of a “shelf” refers to the practice of setting aside questions or doubts that arise about the teachings or history of the Church, with the expectation that they will eventually be resolved or answered at some point in the future.
Many Mormons have described this as mentally placing their questions on a figurative shelf, to be dealt with later when they have more information or understanding. This can include questions about the origins of the Book of Mormon, the role of women in the Church, or controversial historical events involving the early leaders of the Church.
While the practice of shelving questions has not been formally endorsed by Church leaders, it has been acknowledged as a common experience among members of the Church. Some leaders have mentioned the proverbial idea of this shelf and encouraged members to seek answers to their questions through prayer, study, and personal revelation, while also acknowledging that not all questions may have clear answers in this life so some must wait “on the shelf”.
In Mormon culture, most are familiar with the concept of the shelf to place unanswered questions. There is a hope that over time that these will be answered through increased knowledge and understanding as well as new revelations from church leaders. In recent years, the Church has made efforts to address some of the more controversial aspects of its history and teachings, including through the publication of essays and other materials that provide more context and information. However, the practice of shelving questions remains a common experience for many Mormons, as they seek to reconcile their faith with their own questions and doubts.
Relating the shelf to a forest, we can see each concern or question as a tree. Seeing the complete shelf with all the concerns at once is the effect of taking in a whole forest of trees at once. Once you see that much and are hit with so much cognitive dissonance it’s hard to reconcile it all. There are many many who have left that credit the CES letter for either bringing the issues to their attention or compiling them into a single format where they can’t miss the forest for the trees.
Once you know the forest of trees which are questions and concerns, you can’t unknow them. It is a disorienting step for many, but nearly all are happier on the other side. Have you experienced this conflict of wanting to see the trees safely kept at bay on your shelf, and then zooming out and seeing the whole forest? This leads many to experience a shelf-breaking crisis of faith. Read the many “I was a Mormon” stories that have been contributed or share your own Mormon story.
- The Mormon “Shelf” and Why it’s a Problem
- Writing Your Traumatic Faith Crisis Experience is Healthy and Healing
- Experiencing Groundlessness in a Faith Transition
- Personal Mormon Faith Crisis Report – Faith Crisis Stages
- The Mormon Church Published The Gospel Topic Essays