When Spring returns and the plants are growing with such tremendous forces, such urgency and vigor, I always find my thoughts contemplating the plant world. I am amazed by what nature produces in and of itself. So many forms! So many strategies to find habitat, to take in nutrients, to grow, and to reproduce! I am always enthralled to think of what human beings have cultivated--so many wonderful fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds have been cultivated for centuries so that we can enjoy incredible gifts from the plant world. This co-creative process between Earth and Human Being is such a wonderful picture of how we can live in harmony with the natural world. Of course, when I contemplate the world of plants, it's not all daisies and plums. There are the weeds to consider as well. And I find that I learn just as much, if not more, from the weeds and, particularly, from the human being's relationship with weeds.
Those pesky weeds! Why are there weeds? Why do they grow so easily and abundantly? Why do they grow so fast? How do they keep returning to my garden? Why oh why are there weeds?! If you have these very human thoughts, at least occasionally, then you and I understand one another. We must allow our natural emotions, such as feeling frustration with weeds. Weeds are yet another manifestation of the resistance and difficulties of earthly life. Yes we strive for peace and acceptance, and we must allow for being human. We are, ourselves, both vegetable and weed.
While it will be a feeble improvement on the polarized and dualistic human tendencies that I shall decry below, I will nevertheless present a simple three-part picture of gardeners. For the sake of simplicity, I suggest that there are three attitudes or paths we can take as gardeners.
There is the gardener who encounters weeds with a kind of hatred and seeks to annihilate them. Pulling them out is not enough. This is the gardener who chooses toxic herbicides in an effort to destroy. Sure, this will destroy the weeds, but it will also destroy some beneficials and will make the garden soil toxic for future plants. At times, this approach seems easier. I have wanted to take a poison flame-thrower to bermuda grass at times. Alright, I exaggerate, but only a little! Regardless, we can see that this destructive path is ultimately counter-productive. This is the path of "Fight!"
Then there is the gardener who encounters weeds, perhaps in one season or perhaps over several years, and eventually succumbs to the temptation to just give up. The weeds keep returning. "It is hard work to have a garden. Now the Bermuda grass has taken over! This is too difficult! Forget it!" There are certainly times that giving up seems easier, but this is also counter-productive. The weeds take over the garden and choke out the flowers and vegetables. This is the path of "Flight!"
Is there a third option? Yes, there is the gardener who learns to accept not just the weeds, but the process of weeding itself. "Yes, the weeds return each year. Yes, it is hard work. Yet, I love the work. I am willing to work. I always work toward the satisfaction of a beautiful garden and a good harvest. However, I am also happy with the work itself. It is not just the garden I love, but the gardening process." This is the path of will-imbued, wisdom-enhanced love. As it goes in life, this is the most difficult path.
As you can see, I have offered first the two paths of "fight" and "flight" which are of course the instinctive reactions we have within us, programmed by millions of years of evolution. We are hardwired to revert this dualistic choice. Realizing another path transcends this biological imperative, which I suggest is where we move into truly human behavior. I am not alone in this. Many doctors have referred to that part of the brain that reverts to fight or flight response as the "Reptilian Brain".
I hope you will entertain a seemingly unrelated aside.
In 1836, US Colonel William Travis stood inside the Alamo mission, surrounded by a Mexican force that had offered him and his soldiers a simple choice: surrender (flight) or you will all die (fight). Legend says that Travis drew his sword and marked a line in the sand saying to his soldiers that each one had to make their own choice. All but one chose to stay inside and all of those died. This gesture of bravery appeals to the American spirit, born from a small collection of colonies winning a most unlikely victory of revolution. That spirit is nurtured in other examples like that of the Alamo. When faced with the choice of fight or flight, there is a strong sense that fight may not be the perfect response but at least it is courageous. I would not dare argue that it is never necessary to fight. Likewise I would not suggest that it is never necessary to flee. However, I will always maintain that either of these polarized choices should almost always be choices of last resort. Almost always there is a third path, somewhere between these two extremes.
What happens if we lower the intensity of violence? What if we look at examples that do not include outright physical battle and/or retreat? Obviously, I have already related this to gardening. What if we just look at human interactions, our social behaviors? Can we find similar trends? The polarization we see in our societies today suggests this to be true.
Polarization is the tendency for people to take an entrenched and dualistic position on a particular subject. These days you could pick just about any subject and find that people are polarizing in relation to one another, a tendency endlessly exacerbated by the de-personalized and de-humanized arenas of social media platforms. Indeed, this is such a prevailing dynamic that our very political system itself is polarized. If one's vote is to count, one is virtually confined to voting for one of the two traditional parties. Yes, there are other parties, but those parties have found it very difficult to be anything more than peripheral influences. There have been fleeting and rare successes, but no lasting footholds have been secured in the national political landscape by any of the so-called "third" parties. This extends throughout our culture.
There could be many reasons for why this dynamic exists in any particular instance, but I will posit my opinion on why it stubbornly persists in so many different ways: Just as I suggested with gardening, the dualistic choice process seems to be easier. It seems easier to simplify questions so that we reach yes-or-no, black-or-white, good-or-bad, right-or-wrong, true-or-false types of answers. The classic Alamo line-in-the-sand moment resounds in our culture because it epitomizes so many other moments we experience, though less dramatically, but just as accurately. In other words, the Alamo moment says to each person: "You are either with us or against us!" This actual phrase is not attributed to Col. Travis at the Alamo, but it has been linked to many figures throughout human history, from the Book of Joshua, Cicero, Lenin, Mussolini, Clinton, Bush, and even Sarah Palin.
As a society, we like simple questions. YES OR NO makes things seem very clear. A conversation in which both sides or--Heaven forbid!--ALL sides have valid points is a more difficult conversation. It requires more effort, more listening, more considering, more patience, more generosity, etc. It seems easier if I can declare the other person FRIEND OR FOE and move on from there, preparing for the inevitable battle between the two sides, a war in which I am inevitably on the side of goodness and truth! Notice I keep using the word "seem". This is because I find that most topics, indeed almost all topics are far more complex than GOOD/BAD, YES/NO or RIGHT/WRONG.
As an educator for more than two decades, I have watched young humans try out this GOOD/BAD approach in their interactions with others. The inevitable result is polarization and eventual battle on some level. I have seen this in the adult community of schools as well, of course, but adults--myself included, dear friends--are not often as open and honest as children; so that is much trickier to work with.
But polarization itself is like the growing weeds of the garden. When people choose ONE-SIDE-OR-THE-OTHER on topics, they almost always take one of the two paths:
1. To argue with others in the effort to win or to "be right" (antisocial behavior)...OR
2. To isolate themselves and/or others (asocial behavior) in order to avoid conflict.
These are the first two paths of the gardeners. Fight or flight. They seem the easiest, but in the long run they both erode the garden of our society, either laying it to waste or allowing the weeds of conflict and alienation to eventually overgrow everything else.
I believe that these things happen because the weeds of fear and anger will remain easier responses to grow than the nourishing food of love. I believe that with social media and the way in which much of our society interacts today, we are seeing these kinds of polarizing behaviors more and more.
It is difficult to hear things we do not agree with and maintain a space of consideration. It is difficult to enter into true conversation with someone who has done something we do not like. Perhaps most importantly, it is difficult to admit that we are triggered, we are fearful, or we are reacting.
As it is held in so many help-movements, the first step is admitting that the real problem starts with the self. We can waste a lot of time pointing at the world and blaming others for our struggles, but this rarely and perhaps never helps. We can curse the weeds, or we can begin to look at why we are cursing the weeds. We can instead choose to accept weeds in our lives, and even appreciate them for offering us the chance to become more conscious, more loving, stronger, and wiser gardeners. It is up to us to grow the flowers, fruits, and vegetables that will nourish our loved ones and the world that they will live in when we are gone.
The teacher must consider these things deeply. The growing child will face moments, frequently, when the third path, the most difficult path, and the most courageous path, will be an option to them only with our guidance. Fight or flight will always be a weed in the human garden, a tendency we will always have to weed. We must teach the next generation to love the process of weeding.
When we face a difficult math problem, it happens. When the painting is not turning out as we hoped. When a favorite eraser is missing. There are so many moments for us to practice weeding and to love the practice.