Of Weeds, Metaphors, and Digging Deep

This is a time of reflection in the United States—at least I hope it is. Sometimes it feels as if the universe is trying to catch our attention. First, a pandemic upended our daily routines. Then, in my home state, a flood destroyed homes and livelihoods in central Michigan. Now, technology is bringing many of us face-to-face with ugliness in our society that has been too easy to ignore. I walked in marches against racism as a teen. Fifty years later, here we are. All of this was running through my mind last weekend as I was weeding behind our house. I found myself clarifying my thinking, using the power of metaphor.

Behind our house is a small woodlot, separating houses from the commercial area on the other side. Last fall the power company came through and cut down a large number of trees immediately behind our fence, clearing branches away from the wires. Since then, weeds have enthusiastically taken over the cleared ground and are trying hard to take over my garden as well. So, I recently spent several afternoons pulling weeds and thinking. I hadn’t intended to give myself a lesson in metaphor, but that is what happened.

I found myself pulling out three primary types of weeds. The first was easy. It grows quickly and spreads its stems widely, but has shallow roots so it is easy to pull the individual plants. The second is much more difficult. It is a type of creeper that sends shoots out along the ground, rooting itself along the way. When you pull one, you discover it is attached to another and another, over long distances. It is almost impossible to find all the roots, so I resort to yanking out as much as I can, knowing it is likely to re-emerge and need to be pulled again. As I followed the seemingly insidious stems, I kept thinking how they reminded me of the uglier parts of our thoughts and attitudes we strive to eliminate. Those of us raised with privilege can find our ideas about “different” run deep and can emerge in ways we hadn’t expected. We must continue to work and weed if we are to become the allies we hope. This was an interesting metaphor to me, but not particularly new. I suspect all of us have thoughts and habits of various types that we’d love to pull out by the roots.

But I realized the third “weed” was something different. Growing through the woodlot was a kind of ivy that had started its journey as attractive ground cover for my next-door neighbor.  It is a good-looking plant but now, instead of bringing beauty to the yard, it is choking off new growing things. That was when my “aha” moment happened. It occurred to me that as we grow, some of the thoughts we must root out and throw away started out as helpful steps. I’ve said before that my mother’s efforts to teach me that “everyone is the same” were misguided. My weeding reminded me that that is not entirely true. Given her time and upbringing, the idea that we are all the same regardless of skin color was a true and beautiful thing, recognizing shared humanity. It was a giant step forward. But now, it is time to see the limitations of that idea. If I do not see differences, I cannot see different kinds of beauty, strength, or understanding.  So, like the ground cover encroaching on my garden, that idea must be pulled out to make room for new growth. Still, I can recognize its beauty and the way it preserved the soil in readiness for the garden. This important insight happened as I puzzled the relationship between plants and thinking, weeds and not-weeds, using the power of metaphor.

Perhaps my message for today is three-fold. First, it is good to remember the power of metaphors for teaching important concepts. Second, it was helpful for me to remember I need teaching, too, and I can use metaphors to help myself learn. To do that, I had to find a rare moment to let my mind wander. If you have problems that are puzzling you, perhaps you, too, need to allow yourself some quiet thinking space. And finally, perhaps this is a good time for all of us to look for both the weeds and the misplaced ground cover in our lives—the thoughts and attitudes that are either undesirable or outgrown. I have a feeling this is a season for growing.

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