gardener versus builder

In conversation recently, the words dismissively passed my lips “I know it isn’t perfect, but…” This person with whom I was talking replied, “I am beginning to doubt whether the word ‘perfect’ is ever a helpful word for me. I’m wondering if we should just replace the word ‘perfect’ with the word ‘healthy.’ That seems to be a much more helpful.”

Perfect. The word can mean completeness. Wholeness. But oh how this word causes so much strife, depression, disillusionment in our hearts. It has come to represent this unattainable standard.  What are the consequences of this impossible quest for perfect? We gladly run in circles, but the shape we meant to make is gone. I think we are all sick of trying to live up to perfection, and see the dangers of it, but then don’t we just turn around and just try to “do imperfection” perfectly? To appear effortlessly and attractively unkempt. We take on a vocabulary of brokenness, but only expose that which we deem acceptable. Oh bless our little deceptive hearts.

IMG_6697I’ve come up against the exhausting reality of my own imperfection so many times, you’d think I’d be accustomed to it now. Maybe that’s why I find messages from other kindred spirits, whether in conversations, in books, or speakers so cathartic. My heart feels the balm of comfort when someone else lets their real imperfection seep out, when someone puts words to our humanness, sings an anthem of the glories of imperfection. Like when Cal comes to grips with his humanity in East of Eden, the ever wise Lee tells him, “and now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”  This quote speaks to a deep place in my heart– and opens up a whole other cavern of conversations about what the word “good” means, but for now, I will declare that the moments in which I find myself letting go of needing to live up to some specific standard of expectations, I can breathe into the mystery of my wholeness, my holiness, at rest, even in my messy restlessness.

A lot of these thoughts were sparked by this podcast that that same someone shared with me, an interview with Paulo Coelho, a delightful, spunky Brazilian man, a soul with wisdom that pours out in mirth and insight. Krista Tippett, the producer of On Being named this quality about Paulo, who writes and talks about pilgrimage. She sensed this spirit of restlessness about him, but followed that up by saying that it was a life-giving restlessness.  I have a negative connotation associated with that word- but they talked about this quality as the antithesis of settling. And this is something that I can connect with, and nod my head and murmur my “mmm-hmmm” of agreement as I listen. Krista elaborated on this idea of living a life of pilgrimage by saying “There’s a difference between being a builder and being a planter … A gardener is never released from the demands of the garden. It’s by the constant demands it makes of the gardener’s life that it becomes a great adventure. (Paulo’s) not describing a life of settling or peacefulness in a way.”


As someone who deeply desires to live wholeheartedly, one of my greatest fears is that I will settle. That I will give into the subtle temptations of comfort, and find myself in the chains of complacency, a heavy drugged state of indifference. May the battle cry “Wake up O sleeper! Rise and Christ will shine on you!” be a continual anthem of my life! My thoughts can get muddied and murky with the subtleties of the shades of meaning in the words settling, rest, peace, complacency, perfection, excellence, wholehearted living, passion, contentment, etc… but let me be messy with you and still attempt to communicate the truth I am coming up against, an invitation I am sensing in my inner being to healthiness, to wholeness. I feel this invitation, this call to release perceived expectations of perfection and to embrace the complex, vulnerable, daily task of cultivating Life like a gardener would. Here, I’ll let Paulo talk again:

“I think this (call to constant peace) would be in contradiction with nature because nature is never in peace. You see winter fighting and the summer is the sun exploding over my head now so confrontation is part of life. Sometimes I am a bit uncomfortable with the idea of “Give peace a chance.” When you talk about yourself, you have to accept your contradictions, otherwise you will become a block of stone that will never change. That’s why being a gardener in a metaphoric sense is much more important than being a builder, in building things that will not change. They can change but the only change is decay, it’s not something that you can improve.”

This metaphor is so helpful to me– metaphors can often get closer to the truth of a thing than explanations can. A builder seeks to provide function and shelter, they gather materials and follow a plan to complete a structure, there is a rigidity and finality about the thing. (And I’m not knocking this— I come from a family of builders! This process is rich with metaphors as well!) But in contrast, a gardener’s work is to cultivate, to collaborate with nature and elements out of our control to bring forth life, a harvest of nourishment and beauty. A gardener must ruthlessly eliminate that which chokes out life, they must tend to their plants with persistence and care, sometimes pruning, other times allowing to blossom. A gardener must be patient and allow the fruit to come in time, must plan and work with intention to know where the plant will most likely flourish. While a wise gardener will know the best season, and conditions in which to plant, there are so many elements that are out of their control. They must submit to the process of the seasons.  A beautiful combination of intentionality and surrender, the heart of a gardener.

IMG_6378The word “flourish” has been a touchstone word for me lately. Giving myself permission to thrive, delighting in the flourishing of those hearts around me of which I am growing quite fond. To practice the art of cultivating that which is healthy, whole, (even in its complexity and messiness) which looks vastly different than a frenzied self-help driven aim towards perfection. I’m pondering what it looks like in this season, today even, to come alongside the Master Gardener, to help cultivate my heart to be  like a well watered garden?

I will leave you with this quote. Prepare your hearts. It’s a good one.

Never mind pleasure.  Search out joy.

Pleasure is its shadow.

But joy is real, a secret splendor running through all creation.

Like gold, it doesn’t lie about the streets waiting to be picked up.

It has to be dug for, with diligence and passion.

It’s in people, to be found through the practice of love.

It’s in work, in the rigorous exercise of powers of mind or body or spirit.

It’s a gift the created world is perpetually offering;

the price of it is untiring attention to the present moment.  …

Hunt it down, pursue it, track it to its lair where it dwells.

Not in pleasures and pastimes, distractions, piled-up satisfactions, and busyness.

It dwells in truth, and nowhere else.

That’s why it matters.  It will show you moment by moment where truth is for you.

And when you know that, leave to it, turn not aside, be given up to that.

That, if you will will, is a way of life worth living.

~Fae Malania~



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