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Cultivating a Satisfying Life


As I sat working on my woodblocks the other day, I tuned in to the BBC World Service on my cable radio, and listened to a very interesting program about gardening. Now right away, anyone who knows me well will certainly notice something quite strange in that last sentence; namely my juxtaposition of the two words 'interesting' and 'gardening'!

Before all those among you who are blessed with green thumbs get angry at me, I should hasten to explain that it's not that I have any particular negative feelings about gardening; it's just that I've never been able to generate much interest in it. I have enough on my hands simply trying to keep our few house plants alive, without taking on responsibility for a garden full of problems ...

Why then, did I find the program interesting? Well, it wasn't really about gardening, but rather about gardeners. More specifically, it was a half-hour broadcast made up of the reminiscences of a group of men who worked as gardeners on various English country estates in the first half of this century. They were thus very old men indeed, and as most of them were relatively uneducated 'countrymen', it was sometimes quite difficult to understand their speech. I nearly turned it off at first, but for some reason kept it on, and during the half-hour, became gradually more and more intrigued by what they were saying.

The stream of memories all revolved around one main theme: the incredible harshness of their life and work. They laboured from early morning through to evening, six days a week. They had no mechanical aids to ease the work, only the most basic of tools. They were treated almost as serfs by the 'gentry' who employed them, and of course the remuneration they received was paltry indeed. For 29 minutes this recitation went on, and although the story they told was unremitting in its depiction of the hardships and tribulations of their working life, their voices, old and cracked as they were, told a different story.

Not one of them spoke with any bitterness about their life. Not one of them had a single negative word for their past situation. Their voices rather, were full of pleasure in remembrance of these hardships ... and how they had come through them. This was a group of men very proud of the work they had done, proud of the obstacles they had overcome, and very proud of the beautiful gardens they had created.

And then, in the final minutes of the broadcast, the voice of one very old man, toothless and wavering with age, summed up their feelings. "I'd do it all again, I would. I don't regret one minute. I'd do it all again ..." For a man approaching the end of his life, to look back and to say this, seems to me to be the best possible indication that his was a life well spent. How many of us can say the same?

Our soft easy lives, our short working hours and frequent holidays, our multiplicity of creature comforts ... are these things really adding to our enjoyment and satisfaction? When we get near the end of the line and look back, will it be the 'free and easy times' that we recall with pleasure, or will it be those things we accomplished under adverse conditions?

What am I suggesting? That we all return to a life of medieval serfdom? No, of course not. But those words from this group of very proud men do serve to remind us that the easy path is not necessarily the best path. When the road is straight and level, we are inclined to 'switch off' and run on autopilot. We tend to coast, and anybody coasting is obviously going downhill ... We need challenge. We need hardship. We need firm, and even restrictive boundaries. And given these things, along with one more ... a job to do, a goal to reach ... we are at our best.

There is something of a paradox here. Over the course of many centuries, many men have worked hard to improve the lot of mankind. They have obtained their satisfaction from the creation of such things as medicines, washing machines, automobiles, telephones ... all those myriad things that make our life easier. Why is it then, that so many of us now sit here, in a modern world full of these things, and find it so difficult to find fullfillment in our activities? Although many of us do indeed think we have a 'hard' life, and complain about our employer, or our living conditions, or this and that, could the problem actually be that we have it too easy ...?

These days, most of us no longer meet with any real challenge or hardship in our daily lives. And in consequence, the days pass by, one after the other, in an eminently forgettable stream. And when we get to the end of the line, and are looking back over our life, will we be able to say, as that old gardener did, "I'd do it all again, I would."? Sometimes I wonder ...