Most of us have heard the old Chinese proverb about happiness and gardening; one variant goes like this:

              Pleasure for one hour, a bottle of wine;

              Pleasure for one year, a marriage;

              But pleasure for a lifetime, a garden.

On the face of it, this seems pretty simple: get out that garden shovel and start planting seeds if you want to be happy for the rest of your life. As I was reflecting on this the other day, however, it struck me that this proverb is not about gardening as a physical act, but a metaphorical one – you don’t actually need to plant and take care of a real vegetable or flower garden for the rest of your life to be happy, but you should think of yourself as a gardener as you go about the daily activities of your life in order to be happy and fulfilled.

Let’s think about what a real gardener actually does:

  • She plans her garden carefully: does she want vegetables to eat? Flowers for beauty and ornament? A mixture of both? What kinds? Where should it be? What will the weather be like in the growing season? When will the harvest be?
  • She prepares the soil (very important, as seeds will not grow in soil that is too rocky, has too much clay or sand in it, or does not have enough nutrients)
  • She turns over the prepared soil and readies it for planting
  • She selects the seeds according to her plan and plants them
  • Once planted, she must feed and water the seeds and nurture them as they grow into seedlings and stake them as they grow taller so they continue to grow straight and tall
  • She must be careful not to let weeds invade the garden and choke off the growing plants
  • She must be on the lookout for natural predators (deer, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels) who may want to eat the plants in her garden
  • She must watch carefully and judge when the plants are mature and ready for harvesting – too young and they will be unripe, too old and they will be past their prime
  • If she does all of this, she will find herself completely absorbed in her garden – focused not on herself, but on growing and nurturing the plants in her care and rewarded on a daily basis by seeing incremental improvement, and eventually by the harvest which she has so diligently worked toward

Of course, there are many more steps involved, but you get the idea: gardening is a pursuit which requires careful planning, preparation, diligence, careful attention over time, and a desire to nurture and grow things. I’m suggesting that we all should become metaphorical gardeners, that we should select goals to grow and nurture those things which are most important to us (family, friendships, kindness towards others, gratitude, our own personal health and well-being), and carefully tend those things every day until they bear fruit. So, what does a metaphorical gardener do?

  • She plans carefully exactly what she wants to grow and nurture: raise a family? Form long-lasting, nurturing friendships? Create a community organization that serves food to the poor? Sing in a local chorus? Build a business that provides jobs in the community? Earn a law degree? Just like a real gardener, she must plan carefully what she wants to achieve or she can’t even begin her garden.
  • She has to prepare well. With the plan in place and knowing what she wants to achieve, she must lay the groundwork for a successful effort. If she wants to run a marathon, she needs to prepare her body with good nutrition, sleep, and training in order to compete effectively and finish the entire 26.2 mile course. If she wants to start a business, she has to create a business plan, secure funding, hire people, find a location, and so on. As in real gardening, the metaphorical gardener must carefully prepare in order to have the best chance of success.
  • She then plants her seeds and begins to nurture them: the marathoner begins walking every day, then running short distances every week, then works her way up to 5K, 10K, and half-marathon distances. The seeds grow until the plant matures and bears fruit: soon she finds herself at the starting line after months of preparation, confident and ready to begin her race.
  • Along the way, of course, our metaphorical gardener must be careful to watch out for obstacles, bad influences, problems, and other barriers that may prevent her from reaching her goals. Negative thoughts, for examples, are like weeds that threaten to choke out our progress toward any goal and tell us we can’t achieve what we have set out to do. Our marathoner must watch out for injuries, over- or under-training, improper nutrition, or other distractions that may pull her away from her training program and stop her from enjoying the fruit of her labors. The metaphorical gardener, just like the real one, must be vigilant every day and be careful not to let anything interfere with the plans she has carefully laid and the goals she is growing and nurturing.
  • She must carefully judge when the objects of her daily care are mature and ready for harvest: has she tended her relationships with loved ones every day, and is she ready to enjoy deeper experiences of love and tenderness as a result? Is our marathoner ready for the big day when she finally starts the race? Is the entrepreneur ready (after months or years of preparation, nurturing and growing employees, customers, vendor relationships, and her brand) to reap the financial, personal, and community rewards of her growing business? At some point, she must decide to harvest and to reap the crop she has carefully tended, otherwise it will wither and die on the vine, unused.
  • Finally, if she does all these things, our metaphorical gardener will find herself rewarded with a lifetime of deep engagement, focus, joy, and satisfaction as she carefully nurtures and grows herself, the people around her, her community, and the world at large through the careful application of daily care to the objects of her labors, no matter what they are.

You, too, can make the shift and become a metaphorical gardener, starting today. Be intentional: plan carefully what you would like to nurture and grow in your own life and in the lives of those around you. A successful gardener is not focused solely on himself (although he eventually does reap the benefits of the harvest, and must practice self-care along the way), but must focus his attention on nurturing and growing the plants in his care every day; if his attention waivers, the garden falters. Become absorbed in caring for, nurturing, and growing yourself, your family, friends, and other relationship; focus on developing ideas that will become plans and actions that will grow, one step at a time, into the things you want to see in your life; enjoy the deep satisfaction from seeing daily progress as you continue to nurture your metaphorical garden. The ancient Chinese were right: thinking of yourself as a gardener, and applying that metaphor to all areas of your life, is indeed the key to lifelong happiness and fulfillment.