I have been thinking a lot about change lately, as are all of us in the face of recent world events. But there have been other major changes in my life recently – my oldest child started college this year, my middle child started high school, and my work focus has expanded significantly with the recent launching of UF’s Certificate in Horticultural Therapy. In the greenhouse, Covid-19 has led to the shutdown of our therapeutic horticulture programs. Given all of these experiences and their related emotions, I vacillate between being excited by the coming adventures for me and my children and worried about the shift in family and work life. This mixture of feelings led me to ponder the nature of change itself and how we, as individuals, professionals, or organizations, react to and are affected by change. The old saying that ‘the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself’ really is true; change is one of the few constants in our lives.
Author Joe Flowers (1997) points out that in both our personal and professional lives we often plan, act, and react based on the assumption that the future will be much like the present. Many of us live our lives as if the world around us were, or should be, static. We often meet the idea of change with resistance because it carries us out of comfortable patterns and habits and into unknown territory. We can never be sure we’re going to like the changes and it often seems safer and easier to maintain the status quo.
Flowers encourages us to look at the past five to ten years and think about changes that have taken place – in our careers, our relationships, our financial situations, the organizations with which we work, even the way we describe ourselves. Some of these changes might be subtle, others drastic, some are within our control, others out of our control. No matter what, change happens and either we can be flexible and open to its prospects or we can be self-protective and resistant. The problem with resisting change is that it automatically puts us on the defensive, making it difficult for us to see opportunities.
How do we cope with those changes that seem to be totally beyond our control? Flowers suggests that we think about change the same way we think about the weather. How do we treat weather? We keep track of it, we try to find out ahead of time what’s coming, but we also recognize its unpredictability. We prepare for its extremes as best we can and enjoy the good things it brings us. And we never take the weather personally, think it is out to get us, or think that bad weather means we have failed. It’s just the weather. Change, like the weather, reminds us not to waste our energy on that which we cannot control. As Maya Angelou (n.d.) once said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” The skills that we most need to survive and thrive as individuals and organizations are the skills of dealing with change. Philosopher and physicist Alfred North Whitehead (n.d.) said it well: “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order.”
In the Wilmot Botanical Gardens Therapeutic Horticulture program, we are constantly trying to effect change in the midst of order by convincing people to try something new; something that stretches their current experience. For some of our groups that could be encouraging participants to get their hands in the soil for the first time and adjust to the sensory experience. For others it could be acquiring appropriate communication skills in a group activity. And for others still, it could be learning effective ways to employ nature in stress relief practices. Whether I am persuading an administrator to support me in starting a new program or encouraging a client to try a new activity, one of my essential roles as a horticultural therapist is to stimulate change.
It is more challenging to embrace change when it confronts us, but in doing so we can eliminate stress and mental clutter even in the midst of uncertainty. So, when the inevitable winds of change blow into your life, look for opportunities and have confidence in your ability to survive whatever comes your way. And remember, if you bring an umbrella it probably won’t rain.
Elizabeth “Leah” Diehl, RLA, HTM
Lecturer, Dept. of Environmental Horticulture, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Director of Therapeutic Horticulture, Wilmot Botanical Gardens, College of Medicine