Milton Erickson was quite a character. An unconventional psychologist and hypnotist who practiced from the 1950’s onwards. ‘My Voice will go with you’ his biography, describes his extra-ordinary life and how he overcame significant personal challenges and yet lived life so completely, a life most other people would probably have given up on. Neither did he follow the rule book when it came to his client work which has inspired psychology and my own practice for years.
One particular story is so simple and yet filled with wisdom for every day life. It tells of a lady in her late sixties, a favourite aunt of one of his colleagues. The woman had inherited a fortune and yet she was living alone in the family mansion and seriously depressed. She had never having married and now in a wheelchair her social activities were severely curtailed, she was lonely.
She met Erickson at the door and gave him a tour of her large house. She had had the house remodelled to allow wheelchair access, but other than that, it appeared as if nothing had been changed for decades. The furniture and household decorations showed a faded glory and smelling of must. Erickson was struck by the fact that all the curtains were kept closed, making the house a depressing place indeed. However, the aunt saved the very best for last and finally ushered Erickson into the greenhouse attached to the house. She appeared to spend many hours there working with the plants. She proudly showed him her latest project—taking cuttings from her African violets and starting new plants. Erikson noticed that she lit up when she about her plants - a stark contrast to what he had witnessed previously.
In the discussion that followed, Erickson found out that the woman was very isolated. She had previously been quite active in her local church, but since her confinement to a wheelchair she attended church only on Sundays. Because there was no wheelchair access to the church, she hired her handyman to give her a ride to church and lift her into the building after services had started, so she wouldn't disrupt the flow of foot traffic into the church. She also left before services had ended, again so she wouldn't block traffic.
After hearing her story Erickson told her that he thought depression was not really the problem. It was clear to him that her problem was that she was not being a very good Christian. She was taken aback by this and began to bristle, until he explained. "Here you are with all this money, time on your hands, and green fingers. And it's all going to waste. What I recommend is that you get a copy of your church membership list and then look in the latest church bulletin. You'll find announcements of births, illnesses, graduations, engagements, and marriages in there—all the happy and sad events in the life of people in the congregation. Make a number of African violet cuttings and get them well established. Then repot them in gift pots and have your handyman drive you to the homes of people who are affected by these happy or sad events. Bring them a plant and your congratulations or condolences and comfort, whichever is appropriate to the situation." Hearing this, the woman agreed that perhaps she had fallen down in her Christian duty and agreed to do more.
Twenty years later, a newspaper article from the local Journal with a large headline read "African Violet Queen Dies, Mourned by Thousands." The article detailed the life of this incredibly caring woman who had become famous for her flowers and her charitable work with people in the community. She had found a purpose in life and had spread great joy for the years preceding her death.
Aside from it being a fantastic story, I love the message it conveys - this lady did not need drugs or years of intensive therapy and analysis – she had a good life but needed to find meaning and a purpose in the life she had. She was able to use her ‘green fingers’ to spread great joy in her community for years.
Carl Jung wrote “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.” The African Violet Queen did this so beautifully.