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Smelling the flowers


Published: 07/24/2012

by Jim Campbell

The mail brought a picture of me that was taken on a trip. I was fascinated by it. No, not by me with the standard grimace I get on my face when my picture is being taken. What interested me was everything else in the photo: the lovely flowers in the planter, the fancy brickwork in the building, the intricate iron railings in front of the windows, and, on the left side of the photo, a man with a pushcart filled with articles for sale. It is me in the photo! Obviously I was there. I don't remember the flowers, the brickwork or the man with the pushcart.

I missed it all because I wasn't paying attention. My mind was somewhere else -- probably thinking about the next place we were going. Thus I missed out on what was around me, what was happening, because of my anxiety about the next thing on the itinerary -- the coach leaves in 15 minutes; better be there. It wasn't that I didn't 'stop to smell the roses.' I never even saw the roses, or whatever the flowers were.

So now when someone says we should stop and smell the roses, I know they haven't really understood the problem. You have to see the roses first; you have to be present, conscious of your surroundings, rather than mostly concerned about where you'll be next, or what the next problem, meeting, presentation, dinner or weekend might hold for you. Missing the roses is only part of the problem.

Captains of warships, in the days of sail, sighting what might be an enemy ship in the distance, would order the ship cleared for action. On rare occasions they would even order the gun crews to load and prime their cannons but leave the gun ports closed so as not to alert the possible enemy. As they sailed to meet the suspicious ship, tense sailors crouched behind the closed gun ports, guns loaded for action, ready on a second's notice to let loose a broadside. It was a dangerous tactic. One mistake, a misfire, would wreak havoc.

It seems that when we live in advance, concentrating on what might or can happen, on the next task, the next place or the next job, often we can be loaded and primed, ready to go off at a moment's notice. Living ahead of our selves is about more than missing the roses. We put ourselves in danger because misfires easily happen.

Remember the time you were primed and ready to respond 'the next time?' The next time she criticizes, or he's late; the next time a clerk ignores you, or an appointment is changed ... well, "They'd better look out!" You're waiting, blood pressure elevated, nerves taut, expectant, crouching, and ready to fire.

And inevitably the event you have prepared for happens. Bang! Off you go. A lot of damage can be caused -- particularly if the outburst was a misfire. Misfires happen a lot. After all, it's hard to know the whole story, to understand the problem; more often than not the situation is not exactly as you thought, yet the damage has been done. In such cases, we sink our own ship.

Interestingly, our expectations of good times can play havoc with our enjoyment of what actually happens. We can look forward to a fine evening, a beautiful weekend, a great party, a perfect wedding, the holiday of a lifetime; we can see it all laid out flawlessly in our minds and hopes.

Well, 'flawless' events are exceedingly rare and almost non-existent in human affairs. The weather, the ways people interact with each other, are awfully unpredictable; the margin for error, problems, mistakes, misadventure and even for a full-blown disaster to happen, is pretty high. "Why did they have to argue on my wedding day?" "The rain has spoiled everything." "Will this plane ever take off?" Which is why, when you ask how things went, people list everything that went wrong and not what went well.

Living ahead of ourselves makes us vulnerable, less able to see, enjoy and deal with the present. Considering the fact that the present is really all we have, that can be a tragic mistake.

Should we plan for the future? Of course we should. But we should live in the present, see the roses, and watch how the rain runs down their leaves.

Jim Campbell is an Oakville-based writer. Send your comments by e-mail to


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