“How significant that the rich, black mud of our dead stream produces the water lily -- out of that fertile slime springs this spotless purity! It is remarkable that those flowers which are most emblematic of purity should grow in the mud” (Journal entry of Henry David Thoreau, 1853).
Do you feel like you are languishing in the mud of life these days? These past two years have seen us struggling in the mire of the pandemic, political tumult, alarming evidence of climate change, and a myriad of other heavy concerns. Things have grown pretty dark lately, and mud is an apt metaphor for this weighty atmosphere. The future has been more opaque to us than ever, and many of us have undergone periods of pandemic paralysis. We have felt stuck: sometimes creatively, sometimes financially, and certainly physically by being moored to our own homes for long stretches of time. Despite all of this, many of us have been able to find beauty and pleasures and even treasure over these past two years; we have spotted the lily springing from the “fertile slime.”
On a personal level, Thoreau’s quotation resonants. There were times in my life, long before the pandemic, when I wanted to give up. I looked around at my circumstances and felt trapped. I wanted out of the mud of my difficulties. Sometimes it was a situation at work. Other times persistent family or friend problems disrupted my sense of well being. Often I felt demoralized financially, under the strain of debt. I used various unhealthy methods to try to escape my sense of being stuck. I fantasized about flight: flight from a job, flight from relationships, flight out of debt. I often ate more than I needed, spent beyond my means, and worried and complained to those who would listen; these were all symptoms of my wanting to flee my life. I simply could not see the potential for the mud of my life to produce anything beautiful, so I hopped on board various flimsy vehicles to expedite a flight out. Each time, I always landed myself back firmly wedged in the mud of my discontent.
Let me be clear. I have lived a privileged life. At any given moment when I felt suffocated by the mud, I had an abundance about which to be grateful. Many of the relationships I wanted to flee were with basically good people who simply were a little bit flawed, just like me. I was seeking a kind of heaven on earth: a blatant impossibility that now seems laughable. In the conclusion of Walden, Henry David Thoreau writes, “The fault-finder will find faults, even in paradise.” Throughout my mud-bound years I had a faithful, kind, and loving husband and two lively, funny, and joyful children to enjoy. I always had a roof over my head. I always had food to eat. We all did. The point is, my perspective was so clouded over with a film of mud, that I could barely make out the beautiful dimensions of my life.
A lily really can grow out of the mud of a life. It has in my own. I had to let go of the fantasies, the illusions of flight, and to do the work of acknowledging the mud while practicing gratitude for the delicately budding lily more or less visible along the surface. The more I practiced feeling the feelings and accepting the mud while praying for improvements, the more that exquisite lily began to unfurl. I could begin to see all that I had to be thankful for right where I was. I could begin to find a profound peace that everything would be okay, that I could make the changes necessary to feed and care for the lily. I was able to see that through all my flight, in reality, I was only ever flapping about in the mud pretending I was airborne. There had been no crash back to earth. I had never actually got off the ground.
Today I still deal in mud. My feet are always going to be planted in the mud of earth so long as I live here. But I am learning, and will continue to learn throughout my life, the sublime joy of watching the unfolding of beauty within (and not without) life’s difficulties. And it’s significant for me to realize that the extravagant, pure, and soul-satisfying lily develops not despite the mud but partly because of the mud. Sometimes beauty needs the rich soil of dark earth from which to grow. That is life. The beauty along with the pain.
As you go about your day, make a conscious effort to look for the lily budding in your own life. Where can you see evidence of beauty amid what, on a bad day, sometimes looks like squalor? Can you perceive the potential in some of your difficult circumstances for something beautiful to be nurtured into being? How can you begin to train your sight more consistently onto those glimpses of possibility, those sprouts of growth, those causes for gratitude and hope?