This blog was inspired by a Headspace video on the life of a peony.
A plant like a peony looks dead in the winter. But below the ground, it’s still alive. The roots, the plant’s soul, wait patiently for spring and warm weather, sending up new shoots and starting the cycle of birth again.
The roots give plants their continuity. In winter we only see desiccated brown stems, slowly stripped back by the wind and rain, until nothing is left. But buried in the soil, hidden from raging torrents, the roots rest, conserving energy until the sun arrives again.
Without roots the peony can’t survive. They provide both stability and nourishment. They anchor the plant when it’s windy and they absorb nutrients from the soil, helping it grow and reproduce. A peony can live for decades and it’s the roots that are the permanent fixture, when the impermanent stalks, flowers and leaves are gone.
Once a peony grows, the root system needs to follow, spreading to counterbalance the peony’s new height. And now the leaves also have to get to work, using photosynthesis to turn the light into nutrients, sending them to the roots. This cycle continues back and forth — the yin-yang between roots and plant. Each has the other’s back.
Roots are like our values — the permanent, dependable parts of our existence. When the rest of our life expands and contracts, our values keep us rooted to what’s important. Employers come and go, friendships develop and wane. We move house, we change our clothes and we watch our outer casing warp and shift. But at our core it’s our values that nourish us. It’s what gives us stability in troubled times. And the more the wind blows, the deeper our roots need to grow to secure us.
“If you’re feeling any level of discomfort, it’s generally a reflection that one of your values is being threatened, tested, challenged.” Jacqui, Spoon by Spoon interviewee
Values came up in nearly all of my 100 Spoon by Spoon interviews. When values are aligned and congruent it can be heaven. When they are mismatched it can be hell. But sometimes it takes months or years before we have the courage to leave.
Mismatched values happen in relationships. Anne-Charlotte couldn’t stay with her partner because their values didn’t align. “We were in a fight about feminism — I’m a feminist and he wasn’t. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t stay with him. It’s not possible — our values are so different. If I stay, I’m going to switch off, be completely off with my values and everything. So I need to leave.’ And it took me six months to do that.”
Values affect the direction of our lives. Amy felt that “everything about the life I was living was totally against my values. And once I started making decisions based on those values, things got a whole lot better. Listening to my gut, listening to my values, was the best sounding board ever. And the more that I’ve done that, the better it’s got. My gut is my best friend now.”
Our values drive our views on society and how we believe we ought to live. Gina felt that, “What always annoyed me was that everyone around me — and me as well — were all working to make a few people richer. Make the company money.” Instead Gina’s aspiration is that, “Everyone should contribute something to society and make everyone’s lives a little bit better. Care and look out for each other.”
Not living our values can create unhappiness at work. Jenny feels that, “One of my values is authenticity. People (including myself) being able to be who they are and being appreciated for their full personality and skill set and not just a tiny part of it. Whereas at work, I wasn’t aligning my own values — I was pretending to be somebody else at work.”
For Simon it’s “a freedom value — if there are too many constraints, then I won’t feel free. I worked for someone in my early 30, someone that restricted freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of work, of autonomy.” He wanted to feel like he was in control of his own direction. “I might be a little slow getting there, but it’s going to be a lot better than if you tell me what to think. Let me figure it out. And I’ll come to you if I need help.”
Adriana left her job because of values. It started when she became aware of the environment and how people behaved. “Then I realised how strongly I felt about my values. Things such as honesty, integrity, truly doing the right thing, really adding value to the things that I do.” Clashes with her boss were not a coincidence. “Money and revenue came before the wellbeing of the team and before people in general. What I thought was the right thing — for the team and caring for people — he didn’t believe in.”
Like plants, we need to protect our values, protect our roots. We need them so we can withstand the onslaught of our turbulent times. When things wither on the outside our values get us through. Our values give us stability when we lose our friends or family to sickness, our jobs to redundancy, or the life we’ve known. They continue to nourish us when we feel lost.
But we often forget we need to protect our values. We think money and home, relationships and work, will give us all we need. But like the yin-yang of the leaves and roots, our lives and our values need to have each other’s backs. Lose sight of our values and the whole thing crumbles.
We are just like a peony. We get knocked back and yet we spring up, time and time again. And just as the plant looks dead in winter, so our lives look diminished right now. But deep inside, we’re still very much alive. Our values are waiting patiently for the warm weather to arrive.
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.
Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan