This bright planter box lets me believe I am a gardener!

I am/am not a gardener – how definitions can diminish us.

posted in: Everyday Spirit | 2

I was quite affronted recently when somebody dismissively said to me “but you are not a gardener“. Granted, I’ve had my share of plants die. I’ve also had many lovely plans for gardens that have either not got off the drawing board or have been planted with high hopes and then either shrivelled away through neglect, been overgrown, or have not been able to withstand Nature’s onslaught of possums, birds, bugs and weather extremes. And yes, I will also go so far as to admit that if it’s a choice on a cold winter’s day of sitting inside with a book and a coffee, or getting out in the garden, well – reheat that kettle and throw me another blanket!  But does that mean I’m “not a gardener”?  I think not…

I don’t know why this offhand remark bothered me, but it did. So off to the source of all definitions I went – the Oxford Dictionary. It defines a gardener as “A person who tends and cultivates a garden as a pastime or for a living”. Please note, there is no mention here of how successful the results of that tending have to be, or the amount of time or expertise involved. Simply “one who tends and cultivates”. And I do. I greatly enjoy the times I dig the soil, pull weeds, walk around admiring what’s come into bloom, what’s borne fruit, or what’s died in one place and then popped

One of my more successful efforts!
One of my more successful efforts!

up unexpectedly in another. And now that I’ve moved to a much smaller yard and am concentrating my gardening efforts to planter boxes, I find great pleasure in seeing the overflowing petunias, pansies and sea-daisies that flank the steps to my front door. So yes, let me declare it loud and clear, I AM A GARDENER!          

Of course, it’s no big deal whether somebody else thinks I’m a gardener or not (well, actually – for me perhaps it was!) But it’s made me reflect on how our constant defining of things can diminish us. By their very nature, definitions create dualities – by defining what something is, we are also saying what it is not. And this can change the way we think about ourselves and our world, and what we believe is possible for us. When we define things, we don’t allow it to be any other way.

Definitions encourage polarities, which is  “the state of having two opposite or contradictory tendencies” and dualism, “opposition or contrast between two concepts or two aspects of something” (thanks again to the Oxford Dictionary”). Particularly since the Enlightenment, modern man has prided himself on being able to classify and define things, to organize,  categorize and put them in an order that can be written down and passed on as empirical knowledge. And of course this has been useful.

But many things are not that clear-cut. Good and evil, for one, aren’t always easy to separate. What about a well-intentioned “good” thing that ends up causing harm? Or something that is good for one, but terrible for another? Light and dark aren’t always clear either – often there is shadow within the light, or glimpses of light within the darkness. We may call an object heavy, but there are many spaces between its molecules which weigh nothing at all.

This is part of our culture, our way of seeing the world. Things, we believe, are either one way or the other. There is little room for holding two seemingly contradictory notions in our hand, and letting them both be.  We feel forced to choose.

And we can do that to ourselves as well. How often do we find ourselves making statements such as the following: I am/am not creative, I am an introvert/extrovert, I am timid/assertive, I am brave/cowardly? I listened to an historian speaking about some of the recipients of War Medals for Bravery during WWII. Without taking away from the courage they displayed, he pointed out that most of them were not courageous in every instance. Sometimes they were, at other times they weren’t. At least one had previously gone AWOL out of fear at what he faced. I think that seeing them as human beings, with very human reactions to a terrible situation, does not diminish the bravery of their ‘finest hour”. Rather, it makes it all the more inspiring.  We are not one thing or the other – we all hold the potential to be all things within us, depending on the situation.

How freeing that is! To allow ourselves to be different ways at different times – even at the same time. To not restrict ourselves to a definition that no longer fits us. To be able to choose from a whole range of ways of being, and to allow others that freedom as well. This lets us change, experiment, grow and expand.

How can we give ourselves that freedom? One way is to watch our language. Instead of saying “I am”, try replacing it with something less defining – try “at this time” or  “right now I’m choosing” and see if that feels different. In the Italian language, instead of saying “I am hungry/angry/sleepy etc”, they say “I have hunger, anger, sleepiness”.  They are not the sensation or the emotion – rather it is something they experience for the moment.  A small difference, perhaps, but an important one. Try, too, holding completely opposite aspects of yourself, or a situation, and instead of choosing, just let them both be – “this is this and that”.

The American poet Walt Whitman says it best:

And my planter boxes - I AM a gardener - and not!
And my planter boxes – I AM a gardener – and also not!

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself,

I am large, I contain multitudes.

Let’s not limit ourselves. Rather, let’s live large!


In what ways do you define yourself? Does that limit you? Be alert this week for a time when you do that..  And, as always, feel free to share in the comments below.


2 Responses

  1. Kerry

    Thank you for such an insightful article, Jo. It is amazing how we define and limit things: ourselves and others. Maybe such classification helps us feel safe: our world is pigeon-holed and orderly. Perhaps it comes from childhood: the rules, the labels, the division of all the vast possibilities and experiences of life into “good” and “bad”, “safe” and “dangerous”. I am currently going through a process of learning to let go of the definitions I’ve absorbed from other people/religion/authority figures during my life, and opening up to a far more fluid and carefree sense of self.

    • The Spirit Of Us

      Hi Kerry – thanks for your thoughts. It’s true, as you say – definitions and classifications do serve a purpose of helping us make sense of the world, and knowing “where things fit”. Isn’t it funny how we spend the first part of our lives building up this knowledge, and then the next part dismantling it! I guess once we’ve got them in place, we can begin to look at them with a more critical eye, and ask “is this definition helping me or limiting me? What other ways can I see this?”. How are you finding the process? Are there ways you’ve found that help you look at things with fresh eyes and open up to the “more fluid and carefree” (I love that phrase!) sense of self?

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