Bonsai treeIn one of the most profound scenes in The Karate Kid—a movie that fortunately has had no sequels or modern remakes, la la la la I can’t hear you—Daniel LaRusso comes upon Mr. Miyagi pruning his bonsai trees. Are those real trees? Daniel asks. How’d they get so small? Where’d you learn how to do that? In response, Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel to try it himself, but Daniel worries about making a mess of the bonsai tree. Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel to think only of a tree, then hands Daniel a pair of shears.

Mr. Miyagi had other options. He could have given Daniel a bonsai tree, just as he gave one of his trees to Daniel’s mother. He could have asked someone else to prune a bonsai tree for Daniel. He could have guided Daniel’s hands with his own so that Daniel would prune the tree in precisely the right places, or he could have enrolled Daniel in a lengthy apprenticeship so that Daniel would know exactly where to cut. He could have tested Daniel’s idea of a tree to make sure he wasn’t burdened by misconceptions about trees. But this time, Mr. Miyagi didn’t do any of those things. He just handed the shears to Daniel and told him to think of a tree.

Was Daniel’s bonsai tree inspired by Mr. Miyagi? Did the bonsai tree he formed have Mr. Miyagi’s approval? These questions largely miss the point. My. Miyagi handed the shears to Daniel and entrusted the pruning to him. The goal seems to have been precisely not to operate Daniel’s hands for him, but to leave the pruning up to Daniel’s best judgment of what a tree is. Could someone else have pruned it better? Not this tree, because Mr. Miyagi only authorized Daniel to prune it.

Was Daniel an infallible bonsai pruner? Did he make a mistake in pruning the tree? These questions again miss the point. Daniel’s bonsai tree is neither right nor wrong as measured against some external standard; it simply is, the result of Daniel’s fulfilling to his best ability the command from Mr. Miyagi to prune the bonsai tree. Daniel was told to prune the bonsai tree, and he pruned it.

* * *

Daniel would like to give you his bonsai tree. You might not like how Daniel pruned the bonsai tree, you might even be appalled by his concept of the ideal tree, but it’s the only bonsai tree on offer right now. If you don’t like how the branches have been shaped, you will have to decide whether to accept the gift of a bonsai tree from Daniel, or do without entirely. Those are the only two options.

* * *

In the meantime, you are surrounded by lumps of clay, sheets of paper, unformed blocks of marble, and blank canvases. You have been asked to make something out of those materials. It’s not impossible that Michelangelo will rise up and tell you exactly where to chisel, or that Leonardo will descend from above to direct your hands. But it’s highly unlikely. Barring some miraculous intervention, it’s up to you to sculpt, sketch, paint, or carve. You don’t have nearly enough guidance as you would like, and your training and relevant experience are laughably inadequate. But you, and only you, have been entrusted with this clay, paper, stone, and canvas. As you set to work and consider your results, you may find yourself with more sympathy for Daniel and his bonsai tree.

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