Flowers & the Meaning of Life

In these troubling times, here are some words that help refocus perspectives, where the flower emerges not as a pretty object to be admired, but as a ravishing system of aliveness — a kind of silent symphony of interconnected resilience.

Look into a flower, and what do you see?
Into the very heart of nature’s double nature — that is, the contending energies of creation and dissolution, the spiring toward complex form and the tidal pull away from it.
Apollo and Dionysus were names the Greeks gave to these two faces of nature, and nowhere in nature is their contest as plain or as poignant as it is in the beauty of a flower and its rapid passing. There, the achievement of order against all odds and its blithe abandonment.
There, the perfection of art and the blind flux of nature.
There, somehow, both transcendence and necessity.
Could that be it — right there, in a flower — the meaning of life?

For as long as humans have been alive and awake to our bittersweet cosmic inheritance as transient constellations of atoms capable of transcendent beauty, we have found in flowers models of moral wisdom, emblems of freedom, nonbinary pioneers, portals to paying attention.

Over the epochs of time and thought, flowers have rivalled trees as mirrors for the meaning of our human lives.
“To be a flower,” Emily Dickinson wrote in her pre-ecological poem about ecology, “is profound Responsibility.”

A century later, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry made his hero’s central preoccupation the responsibility for a single flower — the Little Prince’s beloved rose: fragile and self-concerned, ferociously hungry for love, capable of such tenderness and such cruelty, so ephemeral and so stubborn, so much a miniature of the contradictory animating forces that make us human.

During the global pandemic, photographer Elena Dorfman documented the slow entropic unblossoming of flowers – images that became an arresting metaphor for a mortal world suddenly fathoming its fragility and resilience in a new way, suddenly awake to the profound responsibility of staying alive. 

And now we are seeing images of shimmering fields of sunflowers lighting up our screens as we watch in consternation another global disconnection.

Flowers are a lens on human nature and our search for meaning.

Grateful thanks to Maria Popova’s The Marginalian newsletter for weekly inspiration, and all the threads used in this post. Do please track these for yourself. They are deeply worth it.

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