Pruning Back, Plowing Ahead

My Soul is a broken field, plowed by pain.
--Sara Teasdale

Suddenly, inexplicably, life accidents strike without warning. A long-distance runner discovers that the tingling in her muscles is multiple sclerosis. A beautiful actress, frequently described as a Hollywood siren, undergoes a double mastectomy. The domestic bliss of a popular lifestyle author, so often celebrated in her books, disintegrates in public view. The face of a stunning young model is slashed by assailants. A gifted musician is pushed beneath a subway train and loses a hand.

If life accidents of this kind seem particularly cruel, it's because they are - prima facie evidence of fate's maliciousness. More often than any of us would like to admit, life has a way of hitting us where it hurts most.

The term "life accident" was first coined by Gail Sheehy in her book Pathfinders. In this book she delved into the life accidents we are powerless to predict or prevent.

"To paraphrase John Lennon," says Sheehey, "life's accidents are what happens to us while we are making other plans." But life's accidents don't have to be fodder for the six o'clock news. The more familiar ones - divorce, debts, or drug addiction - can sideswipe us with equal devastation.

Unfortunately, Sheehy discovered in the course of writing her books, "Most people do not negotiate either predictable passages, especially the later ones, or life accidents successfully." However, those individuals who will themselves to benefit from adversity become what Sheehy calls "pathfinders": real-life champions who, "by refusing to go under in the onslaught of a life accident," emerge victorious.

Life accidents prune us back. Our souls become broken fields, plowed by pain.

Because I am a novice gardener, the task of pruning seems daunting, formidable. Eleanor Perenyui tells me in Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden that "Plants know you are there, and when you approach them knife in hand, they utter tiny shrieks; on the other hand, if you talk to them kindly or pray over them, they reward you with better than average growth." I am more a gardener of the praying and cooing persuasion, which is why I always hold my breath when I prune. I am also perplexed by the notion of cutting away what appears to be thriving in order to promote abundant blooming in the future. To my linear logic, this seems backward.

Yes, I understand intellectually that pruning strengthens rather than weakens, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. As I look at the roses, however, I realize that pruning is necessary for complete growth. So, I have come to realize, is a certain amount of pain in our lives. Pain prunes the unessential emotions, ambitions, and illusions, teaching us the lessons we either consciously or unconsciously refuse to be taught by joy. Pain prunes the insignificant details that distract us from what is really important, sapping our days, energies, and spirits.

When we don't prune in the garden, Nature does it for us through wind, ice, hail, fire, and flood. One way or another, the boughs will be shaped and strengthened. If we don't prune away the stress and plow under the useless in our lives, pain will do it for us.

Make no mistake, I think pain is a wretched gardener. Her cuts stun and sting. But after pruning, preferably voluntary, we're able to discern what's real, what's important, and what's essential for our happiness.

Be of good cheer. Study your plants and study your lifestyle. When the right time arrives, go into the garden with sharp shears. Speak kindly. Pray softly. Prune back. Now plow ahead.

-Sarah Ban Breathnach, Simple Abundance - A Daybook of Comfort and Joy © 1995


Gardening does seem to be a recurring theme here. But it has so much to teach us.

I have many friends, acquaintances, and family who are facing so much in their lives. Many of you who visit here do so because you are facing rough spots, too. Whether it is cancer, substance abuse, sexual abuse, divorce, depression, or just a bad day - all of us are touched by "life accidents." How we deal with those situations either strengthens us, or blows us away.

Many of us who face these types of problems do so with sheer determination, throwing all the energy we have into dealing with the problem and getting on with our lives as we lived them before the problem entered our life. On occasion, we have some of the pruning done for us: someone I know and love is in jail for a serious crime, and now his day consists of 3 squares and clean sheets. Everything else he does is decided for him, where he goes, what he does. Perhaps this is a good thing for him right now. Maybe he will learn to direct his choices better, so that when he is free to make choices they will be good ones. As I explained to him, he will need to decide what is really necessary in his life, and keep that while disposing of the rest. It will make those choices easier to see clearly.

Clearing the clutter away, having a garage sale, pruning and plowing. It is all the same thing when we apply it to what we face in our daily life, inside or outside. And it all has the same effect. We then have room to breathe, room to think, room to grow. Energy to focus on what is really important, instead of getting caught up in tedium. Be sure that the shears are sharp, and that the cut is swift and sure. Dispose of the trimmings in the compost pile (where they will rot as they deserve!) and get on with life. What we are given to tend and cultivate in our life either makes us or breaks us. It is your choice, but if you will do the job with love and care, the garden that is your life will grow and flourish as a result. Be a gardener, and make it grow!



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