Introverts: Caring for Dandelions

By Benedict Varnum 8-29-2013
Girl blowing on dandelions, Volodymyr Goinyk /
Girl blowing on dandelions, Volodymyr Goinyk /

Recently I’ve been re-reading Susan Cain’s excellent book, Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Extroverts will want to take it with a grain of salt (although some of the book’s speculations suggest that extroverts are fairly thick-skinned about being taken down off their pedestals), but the book is a fascinating exploration of what it’s like to be an introvert in the world, including some analysis about how one gets to be an introvert, anyway, including how much is genetic, and how much comes from early environment.

It was in reading one of these “nature or nurture?” passages that I first encountered the “orchid hypothesis.” Taking its name from David Dobbs’ 2009 article, “The Science of Success,” published in The Atlantic, the orchid hypothesis essentially argues, as Cain puts it, that:

“… many children are like dandelions, able to thrive in just about any environment. But others, including the high-reactive types that [developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan] studied, are more like orchids: they wilt easily, but under the right conditions can grow strong and magnificent.” (Quiet, 111)

This jumped off the page at me. This, some part of me thought, we can use!  As Susan Cain briefly touched on some of the implications – “These kids are especially vulnerable to challenges like marital tension, a parent’s death, or abuse” – I began adding in other numbers. Sources will disagree on the exact numbers, but somewhat more than 1.5 million children in the U.S. are homeless. Something like 20 percent of children under 18 live in poverty. Urban school systems struggle with interconnected issues. Our public life has failed to nurture and protect the children in our nation.

The tool seemed so simple: surely “the State,” interested in its own success, would have to acknowledge that it was denying itself of its orchids! Surely if this understanding could be raised to greater civic awareness, we could find some political will to do the hard work of really engaging and improving those conditions of poverty.

The thoughts of those last two paragraphs happened more or less instantly – a sort of “gut” reaction to the orchid hypothesis.

But a second, chilling awareness came on its heels: this “tool” I could see from the orchid hypothesis goes against what I believe as a Christian. The value of human beings is not that they can become “strong and magnificent” – it is simply Gospel truth, in the literal way, that we are to love one another, treating even strangers as neighbors, loving one another as Christ loved us. Strong themes from the scriptures of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others tell us that the God of Abraham wants us to care for the widow and the orphan, the oppressed and the powerless. But those scriptures don’t tell us to do it because it will give our nation orchids.

Politics, however, has been called “the art of the possible.” And it may be that it is possible to overcome the sin we commit together – the sin of not doing the work of building a community that God has asked us to – only by convincing our sinful selves that it is our “business” to do so.

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge, (whose first name means “stone of help” in Hebrew, a name given to a place where Samuel’s victory restored the Ark of the Covenant to God’s people) needs Marley’s ghost to roar through his doors screaming: “BUSINESS?! Mankind was my business! Their common welfare was my business!” before he can begin breaking free of his life of habits blinded to the humanity surrounding him. Perhaps those of us who don’t have the ghosts of our partners shouting warnings at us from beyond need the orchid hypothesis to feed our broken intelligence a reason that might compel us to those things that God has already demanded of us.

But for those of us who are Christians, we should know that it isn’t given to us to decide which flowers are worth tending and which are weeds. The God who has told us to be cared for like lilies of the field, and has given us stewardship of creation with which to effect that care, hasn’t proposed that we also ought to exercise judgment on God’s behalf. The exercise of politics may be the science of the possible, but Christianity is about pushing through the possible into the invitation to something beyond possible.

In the mathematics of the despairing, in the triage of the limited, in the imperfection of this world, we may have to choose which children to shelter – which children are more “differential-susceptible,” and will be damaged more if they remain in anxious, hostile places as they grow. Perhaps, like Orleana in The Poisonwood Bible, we care for our children “from the bottom up” in a world where we cannot hope to protect them all. Perhaps in this age, the best we can do is find a broken ethic of “preventing the most harm” in a broken world that refuses to adopt instead an age-changing ethic of creating nurture.

But until we agree that we should care for the dandelions because God has loved them, and not because we’ve decided they’re valuable, Christians need to acknowledge that we’re falling short of what we’ve been asked to do by God.

Every dandelion ought to be given the same dignity as the strongest, most magnificent orchid.

The Rev. Ben Varnum holds a Masters of Divinity from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and serves as a priest in the Diocese of Kansas of the Episcopal Church.

Image: Girl blowing on dandelions, Volodymyr Goinyk /

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