I’m a gardener, and right now I have nothing to tend. The vegetable garden is still and silent. Only a dried-up old gourd stuck in the fence wire like a fly in a spider web and the withered brown leaves of the herbs catch my eye. The frozen earth crunches as I walk the paths. In the flower beds, even weed seeds are dormant. Nothing, I conclude, is happening. I return to my warm house and my purring cats.
But I’m wrong. For many plants, harsh conditions are essential for life. Though dormant, many seeds need winter to germinate, to flourish into plant-hood. I recently learned about stratification and how freezing and thawing are needed to break down the tough outer shell so seeds can sprout. Without cold wintry blasts, the green potential remains locked within.
Heat and fire do the same for other kinds of seeds. Lodgepole pines need fire to melt the hard resin that seals their cones. When a fire opens the cones, the seeds quickly germinate and start the next generation of tall trees.
It is a strange miracle that hardship triggers growth. What a contradiction to my desire to tenderly provide optimum growing conditions for all babies–human, animal or plant! But the challenge of hardship and the tenderness of careful nurture are both needed for full development. When a butterfly struggles to break through its protective chrysalis into new winged life, it strengthens those new wings to fly. If I ‘help’ by snipping at the chrysalis so it can emerge more easily, it will never fly.
What about human life? I believe we hold more undeveloped potential than we know, more creativity, more strength and wisdom, more possibilities for loving and doing good than we can imagine. Like sealed-up seeds, these untapped potentials are gifts we haven’t yet opened. Although potentials within us can grow when they are carefully nurtured, the strange truth is that sometimes these gifts sprout forth most strongly through painful, harsh conditions. Like seeds that need fire or frost, our full strength and wisdom, our capacity for creativity, courage, and determination can grow more through adversity than through easier times.
As a spiritual companion for others, I am grieved by the pain I witness, but I give thanks for what is sprouting and flourishing in the midst of it. I rejoice when I see untapped potentials from within begin to emerge in difficult, challenging conditions. During economic struggles, it may be strength to hold multiple jobs and support the family or creativity to figure out how to keep a business or community organization running. Perhaps unsuspected gifts of patience and compassion flourish when a loved one has an accident or serious illness. Or perhaps the sprouting of new strength and patience comes when you are the one whose life is upended by accident or illness.
During these last two years, we have been living through a kind of endless pandemic winter. Some of us have known severe loss–the death of someone close or the loss of a job or the loss of in-person school. We’ve struggled with being isolated or with being crowded together. We’ve been scared. We’ve known the pain of divided families and communities. As I listen to people, I hear exhaustion.
But, as we live through these pandemic times, the challenge and the pain continues to crack open new depths of strength and new breadth of compassion. New creativity rises from desperation, and we send forth new shoots. In the hardship of the pandemic, we are still growing.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” I don’t know what kind of seeds we each carry hidden within us; I do know we are capable of wonders. In the midst of hardship and pain, our gifts unfold, and we experience the miracle of growing more fully into whom we’ve been created to be.
I invite you to consider how you have grown during painful, wintry seasons of your life. What seeds have sprouted within you that may never have grown without such hard times? Name them and give thanks.