This morning The Boy and I walked downstairs to pile in the car for school and for work. On the way down the back steps, he noticed for the first time that our downstairs neighbors have new flowers– a round container of flourishing purple petunias. They are quite lovely, a welcome addition to an otherwise drab back porch.
His reaction, though, was different from mine. “Are those real flowers? Those are real flowers,” he half asked, half stated.
“Yes, they are real. I like them!”
“They should get fake flowers. Real ones die.”
I struggled to explain. “Yes, real flowers die. Nothing lives forever. But real flowers are so nice while they are alive. They are wonderful while they are here with us.”
But he was having none of it. “Fake flowers are better.”
I was going to add: “Real flowers are wonderful. That they will die doesn’t take away from how wonderful they are now.” But he had already skipped merrily to the car. He is always in a race with me to the car, and, true to form, he won the race while I was busy offering explanations.
Someday my son shall have to tarry longer beside dying flowers. But there will be time for that. I am glad he doesn’t have to today.
A line of Pindar from the eighth Nemean Ode reads: “But human excellence grows like a vine tree, fed like the green dew, raised up, among wise men and just, to the liquid sky.” Martha Nussbaum, commenting on this line in The Fragility of Goodness, writes: “[The poet] suggests that part of the peculiar beauty of human excellence just is its vulnerability. The tenderness of a plant is not the dazzling hardness of a gem.”
I have come to believe this is true: That what is good for us, and valuable, is not good and valuable in spite of its being limited and transitory. Rather, its goodness is tied to a vulnerability and uniqueness that it only has by virtue of its being limited and fleeting. There may be eternal, invulnerable goods– in fact, I believe there are– but they are of an order entirely different than the distinctly human goods. And I believe that we do not need to take care of them so much as they take care of us.
Many people, both close to me and far, grieve today, and weep, and wait in apprehension. I am right there with you. Let us grieve, and weep, and wait. But let us also stop and ponder purple petunias.