Thursday, December 9, 2010

Arendt in my Garden

Faced with adversity, we may flee or we may battle—“flight or fight,” so the adage goes—but we may do something else that the adage neglects: we may retreat into ourselves.

True, the category of “flight” may be construed as including anything that does not constitute fighting. But here, as with most clichés, we encounter definitional imprecision and categorical difficulty. Does retreat to strategize, to formulate a method of attack—an ode to that human capacity for reasoning/thinking, I suppose—constitute fight or flight? The problem is that the adage confines us to animalistic predisposition; possibilities are superficially reduced; categories are broadened beyond reasonable interpretation.

Thus it may seem odd, given the human – animal antimony I pose above to look to the plant kingdom for answers. But we find that the Rhododendron and the evergreen Viburnums, among others, teach us something not just about themselves, but about ourselves.

As winter increasingly grips the region with its icy clutches, the Rhododendrons and the Viburnums retreat back into themselves. To protect their leathlike leaves, they bring them closer to their bodies, curling their sides and reducing their aerial spread—as if their stems exude an imperceptible but salvational warmth that delivers those leaves from winter’s harsh desiccating winds and bouts of frigidity.

This is a strategy, a method that our adage would relegate to flight, but which really is both and neither. It is a time-tested coping mechanism, simultaneously a form of flight from winter (though deciduous and herbaceous they are not!) and a form of fight against winter (an intrepid resilience in the face of adversity that cannot change reality, but adapts to it).

Likewise, we humans use our bodies to indicate to others our modes of response to adversity around us. I watched a colleague in a meeting yesterday. She rested her elbows on the table, brought her arms close together against her body, her hands either clasped under her chin or her hands resting against the sides of her face—as if she withdrew into herself, looking ardently at the table and papers in front of her, listening intently as we discussed sensitive issues. I spoke not to my colleagues, but to the table, carefully and deliberately avoiding eye contact thinking that if I did I would not provoke an angry response or any unfavorable reaction. Others spoke more forcefully and directly at and to others. In the end, issues were resolved—but not primarily through fight or flight, but through what I think of as retreat. Each of us, in our own peculiar ways, withdrew back into the recesses of ourselves, guided and constrained by an initial decision that essentially and strategically clipped the wings of all present—a brilliant strategy precisely because it emphasized, whether intentionally or not, that the options at stake were really not objectionable. Preferences could and did harden when countered with other preferences, but really those preferences were more innocuous than not. “Clipping our wings” or curling our leaves and reducing their aerial spread underscored that in the end we adapt to the realities before us even as we try to shape those realities. Clichés simply cannot capture such nuance.

The eminent political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) warned us of the dangers of a life lived as thoughtless adherence to cliché in her reports of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, which she reworked and published as the (at the time) controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem. And so I think of her as I think of that meeting and look to the winterizing landscape, foretold by the rhododendrons and viburnum, and feel a particular warmth exuded by the knowledge that Arendt lives on in so many ways—the garden perhaps being the most unexpected.  


  1. very thoughtful matthew! I can identify with the retreat that winter imposes on us. I love how you find such deep, humanistic tendencies in the lives of plants! you are a great writer.

  2. Thanks ever so much for your complimentary comments, Alicia!