“A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
The cool misty rain offers my gardens ample moisture for the tiny seeds to swell in the early spring. The feathery green carrot tops and sprouting beans and squash gently push through the dark earth. Chamomile and mint pry loose from the grip of the cool soil. The sunflower leaves unfold intently toward the sun, capturing the nourishing rays in the creases.
Still so fragile and prey to hungry predators, the seeds swell and sprout … stretch and climb … creating an offering that will one day provide nourishment for my family. With a watchful eye, I monitor the germination of my tiny seedlings, removing anything that may hinder their growth and final path. Invariably, as I water and weed, I will witness the perseverance of the dandelion.
The dandelion is the most misunderstood of all weeds. Its young green leaves contain substantial levels of vitamins A, C, D and B, in addition to iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium and a variety of other minerals. When plucked, dandelion greens make a divine summer salad. The root has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries and (when fermented) offers an earthy libation. The burst of yellow provides early nectar for the pollinating bees and butterflies. Furthermore, according to research being conducted at Johns Hopkins University, this prolific weed may contain anti-cancer properties.
Dandelions grow under the most challenging of circumstances, often making their home in extremely unlikely locations such as concrete cracks. Then, just as their vibrancy begins to fade, the white puffy seedlings are carried along by the breeze, eventually landing, swelling and creating another generation of dandelions.
Dandelion or orchid?
The moxie of the dandelion has been metaphorically captured in a typology related to human resilience. The dandelion child versus the orchid child (originally coined by Bruce Ellis at the University of Arizona) has in recent years been a research topic that examines the interaction between genetics and environment in resilient behavior patterns.
The dandelion child is someone who appears to flourish despite adversity, whereas the orchid child tends to be more sensitive to her or his surroundings and environmental influences. In theory, this sensitivity may result in a greater propensity for both physical and psychological unwellness when exposed to adverse circumstances.
Yet our orchid friends need not fret. Given the right tools, these delicate creatures demonstrate their own resiliency.
Resiliency is the ability to adapt to a variety of challenging experiences. According to psychologist and researcher Susan Kobasa, there are three elements associated with resilient people: the ability to accept the challenge, the ability to be committed to one’s life and the ability to clarify personal control in any situation.
Here are the ABCs to becoming dandelion strong:
1) Accept the challenge. Physically prepare for any challenge by getting plenty of sleep, eating healthfully and engaging in physical activity. Let’s face it, our ability to cope is significantly reduced when we are tired, hungry and weak. Optimal health promotes resiliency.
Furthermore, life is filled with challenges, and each has the potential to be a teacher. This may require leaning into the situation despite discomfort.
As a student of jiu-jitsu, I learned the importance of leverage and flow. Force against force creates a wall and, invariably, a lack of movement. However, leaning into the energy of your opponent will disarm her and allow for movement, which in jiu-jitsu means submission and successful completion of a match. Therefore, lean into that anxiety or fear. It may be telling you to better prepare for that exam or end that dysfunctional relationship.
Finally, viewing an obstacle as temporary allows for a more positive assessment of the situation and promotes a “can do” attitude. A plethora of research supports the power of positive thinking in overall wellness. Surround yourself with inspirational messages that remind you of your ability to get through this challenging moment. I have a sign in my office that reads, “She thought she could … so she did!” So I DID earn that Ph.D. at the age of 50!
2) Be committed. Resiliency is accompanied by a commitment to life, goals and relationships. Alfred Adler, Viennese physician and founder of Adlerian psychology, held that humans are goal-oriented and experience an overall sense of wellness when contributing to community through work, intimacy and friendships. What is most compelling is the desire for these goals (work, intimacy and friendship) to be not only achievable but meaningful. Therefore, find a greater value in your work and relationships.
For example, I remember counseling a client who was experiencing some struggle around the recent death of her estranged mother. Although this client struggled with many issues related to her relationship with her mother, she held firm to the value of her vocation as a janitor. She had worked for a local high school for more than 25 years. She described in detail how it gave her pleasure to take care of the rooms of “those hardworking teachers.” She saw her role as necessary and supportive in the overall education system. She viewed it as a higher calling.
My client recalled a time when she was putting away supplies long after the school day had ended. In the process, she came across a student sitting alone in the corner of the supply room. She told me how she had put her equipment away and then sat down on the cold cement slab next to the student. She described how this student disclosed to her that he felt lost and scared. He had just found out that his girlfriend was pregnant, and he couldn’t deal with it.
“He was going to hang himself! Right here in my closet,” my client told me, shaking her head in disbelief. She went on to tell me how she had talked this young man out of killing himself and stood by his side while he called his mom to tell her that he was in trouble. She beamed as she told this story. She realized the sacred work she provided as a high school janitor.
3) Clarify control. Resiliency includes a clear understanding of personal control. Compassion and empathy do not require the expenditure of energy worrying about things that are out of the person’s control. This is often one of the most difficult lesson to learn. You do not need to take on the drama offered by others. Nor do you need to manage the emotional state of others. Allow other people to manage their own emotional regulation and well-being.
In any given situation, a resilient person will ask “what do I have control over?” and act accordingly. If you don’t have control, then take a deep breath and (sing it with me) … LET IT GO!
Some people just seem to take life in stride, naturally maneuvering the unpredictable terrain. However, the rest of us can develop skills that allow us not only to join the hike but actually take the lead (by accepting the challenge, committing in a full and meaningful way, and clarifying our personal control in the situation).
There is an element of truth in Friedrich Nietzsche’s words: “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Like the dandelion, we can learn to persevere in the most unlikely of circumstances.
However, as I stand here in my garden, thoughtfully contemplating my next move in relation to this bright yellow hardy bud that has started to take residence among my herbs and vegetables, I am reminded of one final lesson offered by this garden-variety Taraxacum officinale: Look for the wishes among the weeds!
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is visiting full-time faculty at Loyola University Maryland in the Pastoral Counseling Department. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is currently working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices, of which this article is an excerpt. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See Fisher’s debut column “Seeking connections to ourselves, others and the sacred“