Blaming the Lettuce

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into the reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or our family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.

One day in Paris, I gave a lecture about not blaming the lettuce. After the talk, I was doing walking meditation by myself, when I turned the corner of a building, I overheard an eight-year-old girl telling her mother, ‘Mommy, remember to water me. I am your lettuce.’ I was so pleased that she had understood my point completely. Then I heard her mother reply, ‘Yes, my daughter, and I am your lettuce also. So please don’t forget to water me too.'”

This section comes from yesterday morning’s reading of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step. This past weekend I finished Seth Godin‘s book called Tribes. It’s about leadership and it’s led me to consider what that role might look like in my own life. Leadership, Godin writes, is about creating change that you believe in. There’s room in the world for everyone to be a leader, but so few do because of what it takes. It takes a commitment to acting like a leader. It takes commitment to not blaming. Thich Nhat Hanh is a leader, but that doesn’t mean we all have to follow his path. Leadership can be something as simple as being aware of our actions and recognizing if we’re practicing blame or understanding, then changing those behaviors accordingly. Godin speaks to this in slightly different terms,

“The easiest thing to do is react. The second easiest thing to do is respond. But the hardest thing to do is initiate. Reacting, as Zig Ziglar has said, is what the body does when you take the wrong kind of medicine. Reacting is what politicians do all the time. Reacting is intuitive and usually dangerous. Managers react. Responding is a much better alternative. You respond to external stimuli with thoughtful action. Organizations respond to competitive threads. Individuals respond to colleagues or to opportunities. Response is always better than reaction. But both pale in comparison to initiative. Initiating is really and truly difficult, and that’s what leaders do. They see something others are ignoring and they jump on it. They cause the events that others have to react to. They make change.”

I’ve been thinking about the lettuce in my life and how expansive that definition really is. My friends are lettuce, but also family and complete strangers. In each of those situations it’s obvious that responding and nurturing the soil is vastly more helpful than reacting, judging, or blaming the lettuce. I’ve gotten on kicks over the last several years where I’ll make it part of routine to reach out to check in on friends daily, trying to tend to them as I might a blossoming head of lettuce. I’m able to look outward and see that necessity, but rarely do I truly and honestly look to nurture my own internal garden in the same way.

It’s one thing to put words on a page saying I’m going to take care of myself and treat myself with understanding as I might another, but just last night I exchanged texts with M. when I was struggling to refrain from heading to a store, loading up on junk food, then loading that food into my face. I was lonely, tired, stressed out, but at no time was my default to offer compassion or understanding to myself.

I can’t remember if this was a satyrical headline I read or something I made up in a dream (how often does that happen to you?), but this thread’s theme is akin to “Local Man Chooses Most Stressful Time in His Life to Set Superhuman Expectations for Himself.” That’s fairly accurate related to the pressures I’ve been putting on myself the last couple weeks. There’s been a loudly humming buzz of anxiety within me and my reaction has been to blame myself: It’s because I’m not meditating more, reading as I’d intended to, exercising more, or doing something extra, rather than responding with understanding. I’m blaming because blaming is a normal reaction; it’s also easier than understanding. Understanding requires an action, it requires recognition, and it requires initiation of non-reactive intent—intent toward others, and intent toward self. Maybe this is why so few people lead.

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