I am a keen, if somewhat haphazard gardener. In the Spring and Summer, I view the garden rather like a room outdoors – except that instead of hoovering, I need to be mowing, pruning and weeding. I managed to get my summer bedding and wildflower seeds planted during the Easter holidays this year, with pleasing results! I am hoping to get some Spring bulbs planted in the next couple of days, so that we will have some colour to look forward to early next year when the weather is dull and depressing.
However, every garden reaches a point in the year where it needs to be prepared for winter: the grass needs a good cut, the bushes need pruning back and any dying summer bedding needs taking out and replacing with autumn colour, before that too quiets and fades.
I find this time of year both sad but also hopeful, I guess. I don’t like it when the garden looks dull and colourless, but I know that the plants need this season of rest, in order to have the energy to grow back and flourish next year.
It so happened that I was pruning back the dog rose bush in the corner of the garden. These are traditional roses, with wide open flowers – great for pollinators, and they smell nice too! But boy, do they have a lot of thorns! Dog roses are fiercely prickly and even sturdy gardening gloves won’t protect you from all the sharp spines. It was covered with bindweed, which we’ve struggled with a lot this year – it’s roots are buried deep within the soil and it is relentless and resilient when it comes to its own survival.
If you’re not familiar with it, bindweed is a voracious climber and a noted survivor in the gardening world. Its roots travel deep into the ground and unless you dig them up completely, a snapped root will simply spawn new tendrils and make a new appearance elsewhere. It will not distinguish between a fence or a flower – everything is fair game for this tenacious terror of the garden!
And this is what had happened to the dog rose – buried beneath layers of bindweed, which had insidiously grown up from the soil at the base of the plant, the bush was completely covered and overthrown. No longer able to flower, the rose was simply surviving, buried under the weight of the other plant.
I couldn’t tell the difference between where the bindweed ended and the rose began.
At first, I thought about pulling the bindweed off, in order to get to the dog rose itself. But the more I pulled, the more rose leaves and slim branches began to be wrenched off. The bindweed was so entrenched, so entangled with the rose that it was impossible to separate the two without causing damage. But to leave it untouched would result in the slow and inevitable death of the rose altogether. And so I made a choice:
I got some sturdy loppers and started slowly and steadily chopping everything away, rose and bindweed together.
It was during this cautious and painful process, that the analogy of relationships occurred to me. The dog rose is like our relationships: sturdy, resilient, able to bring life to other things (think bees and pollination). But like all plants, it needs regular care: pruning, watering and sunlight. A plants’ main driver is survival: they put all their energy into it. But sometimes that energy is misdirected – you might get spurs or creepers growing off in random directions, drawing energy away from the main body of the plant.
Plants, like relationships, need care. Pruning, watering and sunlight.
The bindweed is like the assumptions that can form in relationships over time. Subtle at first, coming from the base and not easily noticed, they can creep up into every area of the plant, leaving few sections untouched. If left unchecked, these assumptions, like the bindweed on my dog rose, will become so overwhelming that it’s impossible to see the shape of the original plant underneath. This happens slowly at first, so we don’t really notice it, but soon it can become overwhelming and we can almost forget what the relationship looked like in the first place.
Our assumptions shape the way we view the relationship. It becomes the new ‘norm’ and we find ourselves responding not to the original shape of the relationship we had with that person, but the new, disfigured, distorted version.
It’s usually at this point that couples or working relationships break down. People say: “I can’t see how it could change.” “She/he isn’t the person I first met.” “We’ve been through too much.” Some people can only see the misshapen mass, and not the rose beneath, and feel that it’s too big a mess to fix.
How then can we possibly save the plant? How can we ever extract the bindweed sufficiently, to get to the good stuff of the plant beneath? It’s not easy, and it requires a strength of character and level of commitment that believes in more than can easily be seen.
How can we fix the situation? How do we restore the plant to full health? We get out the loppers.
Plants, like relationships, require attention: pruning, watering and sunlight. Pruning is important for a perennial plant: without pruning, without an intentional period of rest and regeneration, the plant will strive to continue to support all its disparate shoots and branches, but to its own detriment. People and relationships are like this too – we need periods of growth and periods of rest and restoration. We need seasons of excitement and extension, but we also need time to take stock and consolidate. It’s true when someone says: “She/he isn’t the person I first met.” But did you honestly expect them to be? We are like plants – we grow and develop and change as we age. We are shaped by the seasons in our lives – circumstances and situations; children, work, family, money, death and life. Of course we change. It’s a natural part of the human experience. Not changing – now that would be a far more unusual circumstance.
So to get to the root of the problem, we get out the loppers. And let me be honest: this a brave and painful process. I donned my gardening gloves, took up my loppers and systematically took the whole thing apart. I started at one side and worked my way across and down, cautiously taking each section as it fell down and putting it in a garden bag. The bindweed hid a lot of the dog rose thorns from me, so it was a prickly and painful process. But it was also only at this point that I could see how much the dog rose was struggling, and notice the lack of flowers. Slowly but surely, the bindweed was stripped away, revealing the shape of the wood below. Sturdy, despite its struggles, and strong enough to survive and grow back again next year.
Sometimes we need to prune everything right back to the source, in order to rediscover the heart of the plant, the heart of our relationship.
It’s only when we strip away the assumptions that we can rediscover the plant – and the people beneath. The plant/people haven’t static during this time. They have been growing and changing, just as we have. Sometimes people, like plants, get twisted out of shape by events in life – birth and death, for example, changes us all and sometimes we can’t go back to how things were before. This can be hard to accept – for everyone concerned, but that doesn’t mean that growth and flourishing aren’t possible. It just means that life continues along a new track and maybe in a different direction. Even bushes which have been heavily pruned can regrow into healthy, thriving plants. And sometimes they are all the better for it!
This understanding of how assumptions affect our perceptions and relationships can be applied to all sorts of other things too: not just family or work relationships, but even things like how we react to confrontation, how we choose to spend our money or even how we see God.
Our assumptions fill the gap between knowledge and experience and we often make decisions and choices based on this flimsy bridge. We all need to be mindful of our assumptions, and how they shape our choices and decisions.
May we all seek to take good care of our plants and our relationships. May we recognise the importance of the cyclical seasons of rest and growth. And may we all be mindful of our assumptions and know that we can prune those too, rather than letting them shape us.