It stood there resolutely, a monument to the can-do spirit, a testament to the against-all-odds mentality. In the middle of a crushed limestone driveway, it stood there, improbably alive.
I saw it out of the corner of my eye while I myself stood in the inexorable southern heat, futilely willing my cooling sweat glands to do their job. I walked closer and observed that not only was the pansy living in the early summer heat, it was blooming, just as beautifully as ever.
Driveways are rarely good places to plant flowers, and one should definitely never attempt to plant in the middle of them. And yet, there it stood. And that is not the only way it was out of its element. The pansy was of the variety viola tricolor var. hortensis; it is not a plant that likes heat, and it absolutely prefers well-drained soil. It is a flower that is known to have a longer germination cycle from seed, 1-3 weeks, making it a perfect annual to start indoors, which allows it to make its appearance in late spring, after the last threat of frost has subsided. However, since it also does not like heat, it becomes in the Deep South more of a winter annual, planted when the north is still trying to decide if it is going to be sixty degrees today or snow.
Yet, somehow, the pansy ended up here–in the middle of a driveway, in the intense heat of a Southern summer. Its seed was likely carried in by bird droppings and ended up landing here, far from where any seed would likely want to be (provided, of course, that it had an opinion) by pure random happenstance. But after landing in this most inhospitable location, something happened. Change began to take place. Heat caused a reaction in this little seed, coupled with moisture and humidity. First, little feet in the form of roots began to emerge, each seeking nutrition and providing stability. Then a single stalk sprang up, its little leaf seeking the sunlight above, like a deep-sea diver emerging from the blackness below. Next, an unfurling began, with more leaves emerging from the stalk. The mission of these new leaves was simple: catch moisture and deliver it to the waiting roots below. The roots expanded, reaching as far as they could past this little plant to gather as much nutrition as possible from its garden of stone. Then it happened, the crescendo, the unveiling; a bud emerged from the stalk, cautious at first as it opened ever so slowly, peeking its face of color around a curtain of green, until finally the beckoning sun pulled it from hiding and its brilliant color exploded, smiling for all the world to see.
One thing that decades of landscaping experience has taught me is that plants ultimately will grow where they are happy, and where they are happy is determined by the plant. Whether you have a “green-thumb” or garden by YouTube, think about the plants that make it and the ones that do not. If plants interest you at all, you have seen the person who over-preps, over-plans, and over-cares for their plant. They make the trip to the hardware store, buy the highest quality plant, quickly discarding all the surrounding ones for any sign of a blemish. They buy the best soil, making sure every additive and fertilizer is in it. Perlite: check. Miracle Grow: check. Lime: check. Everything that can help the plant be nurtured and grow, they buy. They get the plant home, carefully removing it from the container. They loosen the roots to give the plant the best chance of not being girdled. They then plant it in the right location–proper sun, proper shade, proper soil–and then they water, water, water.
A few days later, as you are walking around your yard, you look over at your neighbors’ plant, and the once-thriving, newly-planted specimen has moved on to wherever plants go when they are no longer living. According to all expert advice, that plant was in the proper location and everything was correct for it to thrive, and instead it died.
By contrast, if you have ever walked along the rocky gullies of central Indiana or the sandy cliffs of Northern Michigan, you have seen Hemlocks–towering, evergreen Hemlocks–growing in the most unusual of locations. Exposed roots, limited soil, limited nutrients, moisture that is only provided when the snow or rain comes, and yet they tower above many of the trees in the forest, when there is no plausible reason for them to make it. You see their roots above ground, snaking between rocks, and the tree itself bending and warping as it seeks light from the sun above the canopy. You wonder how the tree even stands, let alone lives.
Why does one tree make it, and another does not? How can an overprotected beautiful specimen die in 24 hours, but a flowering plant in a driveway that never should have taken root in the first place live long enough to share its bloom with the world? All of this with no care, only neglect and a harsh, unforgiving environment.
The answer is ultimately unknown. Sure, there is speculation. We can discuss genetics, unknown factors such as disease, insects, and fungus. It can be as simple as too much water causing the roots to rot, or not enough water causing them to shrivel up and die. There are also theories as to succession: which plants come first and can seek out and find nutrients, and which plants come second to live off of the nutrients supplied by the first living matter to occupy an area, such as when new growth begins to come back on a volcanic mountain.
Whatever the actual answer in a particular situation, it seems that people can be no different. How is it that one person can seem unaffected by the storms of life, but another person’s entire world fall apart over a seemingly minor inconvenience? How is it that trials make some stronger but for others it is a crisis from which they may never recover?
I remember early on in my law enforcement career seeing the Field Training Officers and Sergeants who had been at the agency for almost 20 years and were proverbially “Rusting in Place/Retired On Duty.” The “RIPRODs.” They were doing something that they had fallen out of love with a long time ago and felt like they were just biding their time to get to the goal of retirement. They would come across as prisoners, each shift scratching their mark into the prison wall, to keep track of how many days until “freedom.” We have all met them. Everything was horrible, nothing good was happening, and often everything in their life outside of work was falling apart as well. They were planted, barely, but wilting due to an underlying bitterness present in everything they did.
However, when we allow these setbacks to become our reality and we only see the negative, we begin to wither where we are planted. The good news is that we have a choice. The conditions that we find ourselves in do not have to define us.
I also remember seeing newer officers and supervisors, who had overcome great odds to get where they were. They had faced trials and turmoil in their personal lives and sometimes their professional lives, but rather than giving in to the storms, they grew stronger roots, anchoring themselves in the belief that this was just something they were going through and knowing the sun would shine again.
Whether in law enforcement or really any career, we all know people in both camps: the ones who believe that everything negative is happening to them, as though it is some deep-seated conspiracy aimed solely at their happiness, and the ones who believe that bad things happen around them, but they can learn and grow from the lessons that these trials provide. This is a drastic difference and it is almost entirely due to perspective. Our deep-seated beliefs about life and our role in it have a foundational effect on our ability to weather any trials that may come our way.
In life, real storms exist, and they are not always little rain showers. Sometimes they are hurricanes in the low country, they are insurmountable waves and winds buffeting us like wooden structures in sand. Our likelihood of survival seems bleak, and that is the best-case scenario. However, one thing about storms, no matter how terrifying at the time, is that they pass, the wind and waves subside, the sun peeks back out from the gray curtain of clouds, and the song of birds and of life returns. However, only the plants with strong developed root systems can survive these storms, and only people with strong developed core values can handle these life-changing events and come out stronger on the other side.
Life is not about perfect; it is about a perfected response and perspective to the life we have been given.
If we find ourselves in life-changing storms but are always living in the belief that the storm is coming back rather than enjoying life between the storms, we do ourselves a great disservice. We begin to believe that the storms are the only reality of life, and we never again try to bloom. Life is not solely about being comfortable and only existing in the perfect conditions for growth. The perfect temperature, the perfect soil, the perfect water, the perfect light. Life is not about perfect; it is about a perfected response and perspective to the life we have been given.
Whether on the job or in our personal lives, there will always be setbacks. There will always be moments when we question our own survival and whether or not there will be a tomorrow. However, when we allow these setbacks to become our reality and we only see the negative, we begin to wither where we are planted. The good news is that we have a choice. The conditions that we find ourselves in do not have to define us. We can land among the rocks in the most inhospitable of environments and then bloom among the stone.