Relationships are hard work, and they can be confusing. Actually, I should be more specific: people are hard work, and people can be confusing. But there is the potential for beauty, life, and growth. Specifically, I have been thinking a lot about romantic relationships and marriage. What makes a healthy romance? What builds a lasting, thriving marriage? But most of all, how can we be sure that we’ve found “the one”?
For those of you who (like me!) are sometimes baffled by the “other person” aspect of relationship, I hope you’ll enjoy some anecdotal analogies with me. Let’s imagine men are gardeners and women are hanging baskets (and don’t be too smug, ladies, because these analogies can just as easily be reversed!). Relationships can be much simpler than we’re willing to believe, so I’d like to share about a few types of gardeners I’ve come across….
The Zealous Brown-Thumb: This gardener wants a hanging basket of his very own. He doesn’t know anything about taking care of them, but other people have them, so he’d like one too. It can’t be that difficult, right? This gardener really likes to keep his basket with him so he can constantly tend it. If fervor alone could keep a hanging basket alive, his would thrive. However, just as zealous watering means that my family discreetly replaces my 93-year-old great-grandmother’s house plants each week, so mere good intentions don’t allow a hanging basket to thrive. No hanging basket can be hidden indoors (even if the gardener was trying to keep it safe and untouched by passersby), and no hanging basket should be driven around in a hot truck all day in the name of being carefully tended. Soon this gardener finds his once-beautiful basket wilting and often can’t determine the cause. His best opportunities to learn are through experience and time spent with well-seasoned gardeners of healthy baskets.
The Basket Browser: This gardener adores hanging baskets, and he knows he’d like one of his own – eventually. Overall, he just thinks they are really great – and it’s so difficult to decide on one! He finds one that he really likes, and he hangs it on his shopping cart. The problem is not that he doesn’t like the one he’s selected; the problem is that he enjoys perusing the selection. After all, there could always be one just a bit nicer than the one he’s already found. But he doesn’t want to give up the one(s) that he already found! This gardener will often leave baskets literally hanging on his cart, expecting them to be waiting (on his cart) when he finishes browsing and is finally ready to decide on which one he wants to hang on his porch. He’ll be ready eventually, but every basket has a limit of how much uncertainty it will handle before being either taken home or rehung to be chosen by another gardener.
The Game-Plan Gardener: This one plans to garden someday. He’s going to prepare the perfect porch and the perfect pot with just the right amount of sunlight, and he’ll have plenty of plant food and properly fertilized dirt on hand when the time comes. The keyword for this gardener is “someday.” This is the kind of gardener every hanging basket would like to have but also the kind that will not be forced into choosing a basket. His basket-choosing will be on his own terms and only when he feels everything is just right. When he chooses, his basket and porch will be the envy of all the neighbors – but no one can tell quite when that will be. Patience is necessary if you’re holding out to be the hanging basket on his perfect porch.
The Innovative Gardener: Like the last type, this gardener has a strategy – but of a rather different kind. He looked, and what he saw was a fabulous potted plant. He thought to himself, “That potted plant could be put into a hanging basket.” So he prepared his porch, hung a lovely basket, and devotedly spends time coaxing his precious potted plant out of its small pot to transplant it into the larger, brighter hanging basket that he has made ready. He knows this can be done, and he’s willing to take the risk because the potted plant he found was spectacular to him. No one else would have done it or thought of doing it. His hanging basket will thrive – no matter how much it takes, it’s worth the effort to him.
The Bewildered Rookie: This gardener knows a bit about gardening, and he’s determined to find a hanging basket. He hardly knows where to begin; he doesn’t want to get it wrong. When he finds something he likes, he’s still not confident in his own abilities, so he has a question: “Are you a hanging basket?” The hanging basket is like, “Um, yeah. What does it look like?!” Breathing a sigh of relief, this gardener grabs his newly discovered basket and eagerly runs home with it. A few leaves may be lost and a few stems squashed in his mad dash to ensure that no one else gets his basket, but it’s nothing that won’t be healed with a bit of time and loving care. He is pleased with his basket, and nothing is going to take it away from his porch – because there’s no way he’s going basket-shopping again!
The Gardener-Poet: This gardener is a true romantic. If there was ever anyone who would sing to his plants (it’s good for them, you know), it would be him. No matter what happens, no matter how finicky or delicate his hanging basket, this gardener will continue to overcome every obstacle because he’s completely sold on the idyll of a porch with a hanging basket of his own. But more than that, this gardener is completely sold on his basket – no other basket will ever be better or lovelier (even if the basket thinks itself drab or undesirable). There’s no use trying to burst his bubble, so either you’ll go along with it or you won’t.
The Hesitant Green-Thumb: Secretly, this gardener is a true green-thumb, and a hanging basket would thrive under his gentle attentions. His porch is ready, and he’s got a special spot for his would-be basket. He hasn’t brought one home yet, but it’s not because he can’t decide. In fact, he’s always wanted a hanging basket; but he would never get in the way of another gardener. If a hanging basket didn’t seem as though it would be happy on his porch, he would never so much as put it on his cart – he would never just “try it out” to see if he liked how it looked. He thinks flowers are precious, and he treats them accordingly; stem-squashing and leaf-smooshing are not options for him. He’s not always confident that a basket would want to hang on his porch (often assuming that another gardener could offer a better porch), so he’s going to need a clear path to a basket lest he concede porch-privileges to a more assertive gardener.
And the point of all this is…I have met a lot of people – men who are gardeners like the ones I mentioned above, and women who are hanging baskets (or revamped potted plants!) of all sorts.
Men, consider honestly: what type of gardener are you? What type of gardener will you choose to become? Will a hanging basket be safe in your care? Will it have the chance to thrive? Are you willing to learn as you go?
I’ve often heard guys lament that women are complicated. Therein lies a great secret of gardening: every hanging basket has different care requirements that must be met in order for it to thrive. Some need full sun, others full shade, others part sun and part shade. Some need lots of pruning, others need none. Some need lots of water, others need only a bit. Be conscientious of your own basket; you don’t need to care for your basket in the same way that another gardener cares for his basket, because your basket is unique. Learn some gardening generalities, but take care of your own precious basket in the way that it needs.
Here’s a really important thought for you when it comes to romance and marriage: are you choosing an annual or a perennial? Annuals are plants that bloom only for a season, and then that’s it. They are beautiful for a time but never lasting, which means that you should buy the most stunning one you see – and the most expensive one you can afford (because greater expense means a larger plant). Perennials, on the other hand, ebb and grow with the seasons. They experience seasons of blooming and seasons of quietness (even sometimes looking dead during the winter); but they keep growing, keep remaining and rooting deeper. They become better with each passing year as they are well-tended.
Women, are you a perennial or an annual? Which will you choose to become? Are you willing to put down deep roots and weather the seasons? Will you endure both pampering and pruning as needed? Are you prepared to enjoy the porch on which you are hung, or do you not actually want to be a hanging basket? We need both self-awareness and other-awareness in order for our growing experience to be fruitful. (Pun intended.)
“Love planted deeply becomes what it ought to, and hearts given freely become what they ought to be” (“Ought to Be” by Audrey Assad). Romance and marriage are meant to be like that. Ideally, we get to choose something that begins well. But no matter what the beginning, we should be always seeking for love to grow richer, fuller, and deeper. That’s the kind of love and marriage I want to cultivate – the kind in which the best is always yet to come.
When we choose a spouse, we often choose as though we are selecting an annual, looking for something that has the brightest blooms NOW and the shiniest leaves NOW. In Christendom, we have embraced the lie of “annual love” (the best NOW). I am sorry to say, we have a name for this false notion of love: “finding the one.” We look for something that will be big enough and splendid enough to be rationed out for as many years as necessary. Unfortunately, many people then find that their love “fades” or their feelings are altered with time. Why? Because they mistakenly assume that the best already happened. There is, with annual love, the underlying notion that the love and loveliness of romance and marriage are “used up” over time.
But the reality is that true love becomes better over time and with careful tending. In light of this precious truth, we are free to look for that little nub of a perennial, a teensy starter plant, or for a plant full of buds rather than blooms. Why? Because, after a few years and with gentle coaxing, little starters become strong, beautiful plants – the heirloom plants that everyone envies but few are willing to wait for. Because there will come a day when the buds, so long awaited, burst into the fullness of the flowers that they were always meant to be. True love becomes so, so much better with time and intentional care. And, because it is so beautifully freeing, I’ll share this wonderful secret with you as well: your “one” is the one you choose. That’s it. That’s all. There is no “one” better than the one you chose, no “one” God intended for you instead. I know not every romance or marriage “works out”; this happens because people aren’t perfect and don’t always make perfect choices. But be willing to choose, and be willing to cultivate a healthy garden with the one you choose. Heirloom plants don’t simply “happen,” and neither do wonderful marriages.
Again, I remind you that these analogies of gardeners and plants can be reversed, and the same anecdotes and questions can be applied. Some gardeners simply enjoy trampling hanging baskets or changing them out faster than seasons turn for reasons I can scarcely begin to fathom. Some hanging baskets are afraid to show their true colors for fear that they will be judged as too much or not enough in some way. Gardening has many joys, but it isn’t easy.
I could have readily added more descriptions of various gardeners and their hanging baskets. My real intention, however, was not to place all people into certain categories but rather to share what God has been teaching me about romance and people and imperfection – and sometimes a bit of humor is the best mode of delivery for deep truth. The only perfect Gardener is our good God (see John 15:1-8), who teaches us what it means to be tender plants cared for by a loving hand, being steadied by Jesus and learning to bear healthy fruit. From our Good Gardener, we can learn how to provide similar faithful care for the precious “plants” in our lives. Ultimately, His care alone is steady and unfailing; He alone knows all our needs, our weak branches, and our potential fruits. So let us learn to be as fearless and wise in our gardening endeavors – be they romance or other relationships – as He is in His. He tirelessly tends us; and now, brave hearts, it is our turn to create space for roots to grow deep and gardens to thrive.