Ellen Rufft

I have been reflecting on dandelions lately. The reason is not merely that they are flourishing everywhere these days, but rather a conversation I overheard in a hospital gift shop recently. A little girl was asking her mother why she was buying flowers for her sick friend instead of giving her a bunch of dandelions from their yard. The mother replied that dandelions are weeds. She explained to her daughter that people don’t like them because there are too many and they make it difficult to keep the grass looking nice.

 

The child countered: “But they’re prettier than grass. Who decides which things are weeds and which are flowers?” The woman just smiled at the child and made no reply.

I went to visit one of the sisters in my religious community a while ago. She works at a temporary home for refugees in Texas. I met the nine immigrants living there and learned a little of their stories and of the others who had been there in the past. I heard about the hardships they had endured trying to enter this country, the horrors they had tried to flee in their own lands and the hopes they had for a new life. There were tales about seeing relatives tortured and murdered, of escaping across the water carrying their clothes on their heads and reaching safety, only to be caught and sent back or else put into a detention camp and treated like criminals.

When I went to visit one of the offices where people are working to help refugees gain asylum in this country, I asked a young lawyer there how it is decided who can stay and who gets deported. He told me it’s a complicated process. “It involves a lot of time and paperwork,” he said, “and the judges make the final decisions.” That’s when I thought about the dandelions. The refugees seem as countless as those little yellow flowers. They are appearing at our borders by the thousands; their numbers are uncontrollable; they are inconvenient; we can’t as easily maintain our nice, middle-class lives when they’re around. So it has been decided that, despite the beauty of their persons, they are weeds. And just like the dandelions, many will be crushed.

I have pondered the analogy for some days now: growing things and persons, some of each considered flowers and some weeds, some of each worthy to be nurtured and displayed, others only to be discarded. For a time, I took some comfort from the fact that I am not one of those judges who make weighty decisions that determine another person’s life or death. And then I remembered some of my decisions, less weighty, but equally discriminating. There was the woman on the plane en route to Texas who had never flown before; she wanted to talk because she was nervous. She was a young woman with too much bright red lipstick, heavy blue mascara and rings in her eyebrows and lower lip. Her voice was loud, her nervous laughter jarring and her chatter too superficial for my taste. I very grudgingly, and only intermittently, put down the book I was reading and listened to her. I had, in truth, labeled her a dandelion, a weed, unworthy of my attention.

I recall too the eccentric-looking woman I saw a while ago begging on a street corner downtown. She was surrounded by her four cats and was asking for money to feed them as well as herself. I gave her nothing, but self-righteously dropped a few coins into the cup of a handicapped man on the next corner, whom I had deemed to be one of the “deserving poor.” I thought with some chagrin too of the times I have mentally “written off” the opinions of others whom I view as too conservative or right wing, too hawkish or red-neck, too fundamentalist or charismatic. I had to admit to myself that I sometimes behave as though I have the right to judge others’ motives and hearts and declare them to be weeds or flowers.

Although I am always appalled when government leaders describe civilians killed in war as “collateral damage,” i.e., as dandelions, it has become quite clear to me that there is no lack of collateral damage in my own life, especially in the way I, at times, have discounted segments of our society whose opinions or lifestyles differ from my own.

While it is devastating to recognize how frequently those “at the top” make decisions that crush the lives of other human beings as surely as a lawnmower cuts off the heads of the little yellow flowers, it is even more disheartening to realize that we do so too when we arbitrarily decide that some people are like flowers to be cherished, and others like weeds to be cut off or ignored.

I am looking at dandelions with new respect these days, hoping that their brightness will continue to illumine my consciousness about the inherent worth of every human being. There can be no doubt that Jesus chose those whom society would readily consider weeds to be his companions and the recipients of his love and care. Would that such indiscriminate graciousness characterized our lives!

Ellen Rufft, C.D.P., is a former provincial director of the Pittsburgh Province of the Sisters of Divine Providence.

Recently in Columns