March 24, 2012

How to Use Hard Times to Cultivate a New Harvest.

Seasons of Success.

I’m an avid vegetable gardener, and a few years ago I managed to grow an astonishing quantity of lush, ripe tomatoes. Where I live, it is not unusual for tomatoes to languish on the vine, pining for sun and warmth that never comes, so the bounty of this harvest grabs and holds my attention.

Every day or two I went out to the garden and gathered the ripest fruit. I marveled at the daily abundance and scurried to put it to good use. Even after sharing with our neighbors, my counter was mounded with plump red globes. I made and froze tomato sauce; I kept picking.

Even as I exulted in my tomato wealth, I noticed that the leaves of the neighboring squash and cucumber vines were turning yellow. The beans had stopped the wild clambering skyward and were slumping against their poles, sinking toward the ground. At the peak of this perfect harvest, my garden was dying.

Abundance and decline are part of the same cycle:

In life and work, we often experience great abundance at the very moment that our fortunes appear to decline. Sometimes the decline is the result of external events. Sometimes, just as we achieve the pinnacle of our aspirations, something in us begins to whisper that winter is coming.

If we don’t have a context for it, this can be deeply unsettling. We may conclude that there is something wrong with us, with our work, with our relationships. We may accuse ourselves or others of lacking focus, fearing failure, self-sabotage. In fact, it may simply be that autumn has come to us.

Far from being the harbinger of ill fortune, autumn prompts you to gather in the last fruits of summer and to prepare for the dark work of hibernation and renewal. It is time to slow down, to pull back, to change course at the very moment that the world around you cries: “Way to go! Do it again! Don’t change a thing!”

Just as the squash in my garden produces blossoms that cannot possibly mature before winter kills the vine, so your mind continues to generate new ideas and projects in spite of dwindling resources. All the while Spirit whispers, “Slow down.”

Fall is not a problem to be solved:

When we resist the bitter sweetness of autumn, we live as though fall were a problem and spring the solution. This reduces our capacity to notice and respond to the unique opportunities and challenges of the darker seasons. When spring does arrive, we are exhausted from railing against the winter (and may become drunk on the sun).

How different it is to know that when passion, conviction, and stamina are waning, there may be nothing amiss. It is only autumn, come to remind us to enjoy the harvest and prepare for winter.

The art of the seasons:

How do we do this? First, we allow room for the complex mood of the season by savoring both celebration and loss. Name and acknowledge the fruits of the past season, even as we embrace the possibility that our old ways of working are passing away.

Fall is a time of completion, a time to pick up the pieces. Collect monies owed; pay the bills. Organize files; finish reports; remove clutter. Trim expenses so that our worlds can be sustained on a leaner, wintertime cash flow.

Just as it is folly to plant corn out of season, so we will be cautious about making new commitments or starting new projects. Our just-past successes will likely throw off the seeds of many more new ventures than we can possibly support, so we will wisely collect these seeds for planting at a more auspicious time.

A gardener protects and nourishes the topsoil by planting cover crops or applying mulch. So invest time in training to develop the underlying skills that will be needed when spring and summer roll around.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta.

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