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 ...