What to Do After the Petals Fall?

Perhaps the tulip know the fickleness
Of Fortune’s smile, for on her stalk’s green shaft
She bears a wine cup through the wilderness

~Shams Al-din Hafiz Shirazi

My friend Jack Gwaltney, an accomplished stage, film and television actor, and also, for some years now, my writing partner on several creative projects (my favorite is our play imagining Scrooge relapsing and being visited by three news “spirits”- Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin), asked me the other day:

What meaning will be taken from the pandemic once it is over and how will it change us?

It was a great question, and I didn’t have a great answer.

I mean, I had a good enough answer, several, in fact, and pretty obvious ones, ranging from the realistic (businesses will permanently switch to digital-based operations so employees can work remotely) to the idealistic (after practicing social distancing for so long, people will not take for granted, and be more grateful, to see friends, to gather in groups, to hug and kiss and hold the ones we like and love, to satisfy our evolutionary-driven need to connect closely with others).

But the best answer to Jack’s question, the most truthful, and probably the most helpful, would have been to simply say: “Who knows?”

The truth is it’s impossible to predict the future.  We can make guesses, educated ones, but there is no way to be absolutely certain that something is going to happen we think will happen.   We can, however, live in the moment, and, after the moment has passed, learn from it and move on to the next moment and so on and so on.  As Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

How best though to understand life – our lives?  I believe reflection is the key; taking the time to make sense of what we have done or didn’t do, what we experienced and how it made us feel.  As Jennifer Porter’s article in the Harvard Business Review  (Why You Should Make Time For Self-Reflection, Even If You Hate Doing it) states:

Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions. For leaders, this “meaning making” is crucial to their ongoing growth and development.

But I also believe that reflection allows us a vital way to recharge ourselves.   The investment of time to explore and examine our experiences and perspectives is an investment in our futures.  As a metaphor, take the tulip.

After its spring bloom, its flower, the petals, eventually fall, leaving a naked stem and leaves to wilt and die.  But while unsightly, it is important, especially if you have a garden of these beauties, not to remove the foliage until it is completely brown.  Why?  Because while the plant is making this transition back to dormancy, it is returning nutrients to the bulb.  It is replenishing the bulb, its life source, so that the next spring, once the conditions are right, it will have the energy and strength needed to give the world another wondrous gift of shape and color.

This is how I am looking at the Pandemic.  It will be my approach once it is over, or when we are able to safely return to as normal a life as possible.  In those weeks and months, however long it will take, I will think of myself as a tulip whose petals have fallen, who is in transition, who is taking the steps needed to refill, to reenergize, so that when the conditions are right, I will be ready to once again be all that I can be.

That’s the plan.  And that’s the meaning I am counting on.


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