I’ve recently taken an interest in plants, and like most new interests, I jumped in head first with little to no research ahead of time. I like to figure things out as I go; if I don’t have physical experience doing the new activity, the instructions make no sense to me. I have to get my hands on it first to be able to conceptualize what I’m supposed to do.
Now, after a few months, I have eleven potted plants sitting around the house in various places. After over-watering and turning leaves black, I’ve learned how much water each plant needs and how often. After reading about direct and indirect light, north and south facing windows, and moving lots of plants around, I’ve found the area of the house where each plant is happiest. I’ve re-potted a few when they didn’t seem to be thriving or they were growing out of their pots. I killed one completely, but I’ve managed to keep the majority of them alive. I talk to them and I’ve named them all (after Harry Potter characters, of course). I love them. They’ve been patient during the learning process and resilient enough to survive my mistakes and forgetfulness.
However, after all the success I’ve had, I still get discouraged any time a new leaf turns brown and dies. These incessant thoughts run through my mind anytime I see it: “What was I doing wrong? I didn’t forget to water it. I don’t think I over-watered it. This is supposed to be one of the toughest plants out there! Why can’t I keep it alive? Maybe I’m not cut out for this. Maybe I should get rid of a few of these.” It seems silly to take a brown leaf so personally, right? At times though, it would almost bring me to tears. If I was doing everything right, just the way I was supposed to, then no leaves should die. There should be no brown, only green.
This process of learning a new skill revealed an ugly perfectionist streak in me. Not only did I get frustrated at myself for “failing”, but it felt like a personal attack on my worth. These plants should not experience death, only life! If I was caring for it correctly then this never would have happened. But then it hit me: death is a part of life. Plants are constantly shedding old leaves so that they can provide for new life. In order to have enough nutrients for the new growth, something old must die. I don’t know why it took me so long to understand this. As hard as it was to watch a leaf or even a whole strand of leaves die, it was often a good sign. It was a sign that new life was coming. And once I realized this I relaxed and started to really enjoy taking care of my plants.
I’ve had an equally challenging time taking care of myself lately. I’ve been tired and depressed, and every bad day feels like a failure, like a brown leaf. I read, go to church, and go to therapy, and still I struggle. I keep thinking “if I was trying hard enough and doing all the right things, I would be happy. This must mean I’m doing something wrong.” And then I realized as humans, we are just like plants. We must accept death in order to experience life. Depression does not equal failure. A bad day does not mean a bad life. One brown leaf does not equal a dead plant. The process of growth is so damn painful. Even physically, growing hurts. As a child I would get growing pains in my legs and arms. Why would spiritual and emotional growth not hurt too?
Now, I’m not saying that every bad thing that happens in life is actually good. This fallen world can be a very dark place. I do believe, however, that we don’t experience pain for no reason. God knows what we need, and he can turn anything into a gift. He can create life out of even the most painful deaths. The hardest part is not knowing that new life is just around the corner. We can’t see the little bud about to burst forth from decay.
I’m trying to trust God with every part of me that doesn’t make sense. I don’t like being depressed. I don’t like struggling to connect with my friends and family and children. I don’t like not feeling happy, but at the end of the day, happiness is not the goal of life. Growth is. Growth towards God and growth towards humanity. We are more resilient than we feel, just like my plants. I’m so thankful that I have a wonderful gardener that sees every need of mine and helps me to grow in the most beautiful way. I can’t prune myself. I can’t feed myself. All I can do is stretch towards the sun and wait for the rain.