Monday, March 12, 2012

The Parable of the Lilac Bush

When we moved into our home, I planted a lilac bush in our backyard so that my wife would be able to enjoy its blossoms from the kitchen window. I was delighted by how quickly the bushes shot up. But year after year, the lilac bush produced no blossoms at all. After about five years, I gave up, assuming that the bush was a dud (or maybe it was the guy who planted it).

Suddenly, a few years ago, the bush produced a huge profusion of blossoms. We were delighted by their beauty and the fragrance that filled our backyard. And the bush has blossomed faithfully ever since. It wasn’t until wintertime, though, that I realized what had happened.

When I looked at the bare lilac branches, I realized that they were all crooked. They had all s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d crazily to one side. That’s when it dawned on me (yes, I’m not a brilliant gardener) that I had planted the bush in the shade of another tree, and it had taken the bush years of arduous stretching to reach enough sunlight to blossom. I have a great respect for that diligent sun-seeking plant that succeeded despite my ineptitude.

Prof. Kim Cameron, who is an Associate Dean at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, teaches frequently about what he calls the “heliotropic” nature of living organisms. Heliotropic means “oriented toward the sun.” Virtually all life forms – flora and fauna – display an innate striving toward light, or other sources of life. Just like my lilac bush, they stretch mightily to bask in life-giving influence.

It strikes me that we human beings are about the only organisms who occasionally choose darkness and depletion intentionally!

Clearly, there are strong spiritual lessons to be learned from heliotropism. I have personally found that I “blossom” and thrive when I strive toward the light of God. But I also find great parallels to the lesson of the lilac bush in my professional life. How often do I shun opportunities to strive for excellence? For service? The greatest thriving we experience in our careers – and the greatest (and sometimes very uncomfortable) stretching – only happens when we reach toward the light that emanates from inspiration, from passion, from engagement, from devotion, from serving a noble cause.

When work starts to feel like a confined, dark space, try reflecting on my lilac bush. Instead of retreating to the shadows of mundaneness, bureaucracy, or self-absorption, think about how you can s-t-r-e-t-c-h toward something luminous and life-giving at work. You’ll probably find it most quickly by thinking about how you can serve others. 


  1. My late Dutch grandmother was a master gardner. She had an amazing garden! Recently, my sister in law told me of a story about my grandma that is applicable to your lilac story. My sister-in-law had a lilac bush and some fruit trees that weren't producing. Her advice was to take a broom handle and beat the tree, and bush, a bit. After her "beating" the trees, each fully bloomed more than ever before. Sun wasn't the issue in this case but I could argue that the bush needed some challenges and trials to stumble through to bear fruit and flower. Possible this lilac was handled too tenderly and it needed to know adversity. I'm not sure of the answer, as I agree we need to stretch for light in our life, and we do also need challenges (even though I hate going through them) but your story did resonate with this story of my grandmother.


  2. Great analogy. Thank goodness and thank God we can always choose--choose how we react to those who would want us to think "darkness" is what you get-- who seems to emphasises suffering instead of possibility, enjoyment, and reaching out. I love the parallel of the light because indeed we can seek to sorround ourselves of good, positive people and bring much good by serving those around us, despite other forces who would want to bring us down to misery as they are--

  3. And as you infer, sometimes we only stretch when we *don't* have what we need. Lesson in that for all of us heliotropes.

  4. Perfect timing, as your posts so often are for me.