"Consider the Lilies", by Søren Kierkegaard
Mis à jour : janv. 11
Cardinal Flower and Madonna lily (The new botanic garden, 1806)
"Once upon a time there was a lily that stood in a secluded place beside a little rippling brook. It lived in happy companionship with some nettles and a few other little flowers that grew nearby. The lily was more beautifully arrayed than Solomon in all his glory. Moreover, it was carefree and happy. One day a little bird came by to visit the lily. It came again the following day.
Then it stayed away for several days before it came again.
Now this seemed rather odd and baffling to the lily – strange that the bird did not remain in the same place like the little flowers nearby; how could the bird be so fickle? But as so often happens, the lily fell in love with the bird precisely because the bird was so fickle.
This little bird, however, was proud and naughty. Instead of delighting in the lily’s beauty and sharing the joy of its innocent happiness, it would show off its freedom, making the lily feel its bondage. Not only that, the little bird talked fast and loose, of how in other places there were lots of lilies far more beautiful and in those places there was rapture and merriment, a fragrance, a splendor of colors, a singing of the birds that was beyond all description.
This is how the bird spoke, and its stories usually ended with the remark – so humiliating for the lily – that in comparison with such glory the poor lily looked like nothing. Indeed, according to the bird, there was reason to wonder if it had any right to be called a lily.
So the lily began to fret.
The more it listened to the bird the more worried it became. It no longer slept soundly at night. It no longer woke up happy in the morning. It felt imprisoned and bound. It found the purling of the water tiresome and the day long. In self-concern it began to be preoccupied with itself and the condition of its life.
“To look so inferior as I do,” said the lily to itself, “to be as insignificant as the little bird says I am – oh, why was I not placed somewhere else, under different conditions ? Oh why did I not become a Crown Imperial ?”
Crown Imperial Fritillary (Van Eeden & Co., 1872)
To make matters worse, the lily noticed that it was becoming exhausted from its worry. So it talked seriously to itself, yet not so seriously that it banished the worry out of its mind. Rather, it talked in such a way as to convince itself that its worry was justified.
“After all,” it said, “my wish is not an unreasonable one. I am not asking the impossible, to become what I am not – a bird, for example. My wish is only to become a beautiful lily, or even perhaps the most beautiful.”
Amidst all this, the little bird flew back and forth, and with every visit and every departure the lily became more and more agitated. Finally it confided everything to the bird, and that
evening they decided there had to be a change that would put an end to all the worry. So early the next morning the little bird came. He pecked away the soil from the lily’s root so that it might become free.
When this had been done, the bird took the lily under its wing and flew away. The decision was that the bird should fly with the lily to the place where the most beautiful lilies blossomed. Then the bird was to help the lily get planted down in the hope that with the change of place and the new surroundings it might succeed in becoming a magnificent lily in the company of all the others, or perhaps even a Crown Imperial envied by all the others.
Alas, on the way the lily withered !
What does this have to say to us ? The lily is we human beings. That proud, naughty little bird is the restless attitude of comparison, which roams far and wide, fitfully and capriciously, acquiring a diseased knowledge of distinction. And just as the bird did not put itself in the lily’s place, comparison (or comparing) does the same thing by either putting us in someone else’s place or putting someone else in ours. In his preoccupation with comparisons, the worried person finally forgets altogether that he is a human being.
He despairingly thinks of himself as being so different from others that he even believes he is different in his very humanity. That, of course, is what the little bird meant when he suggested that the lily was so insignificant that there was reason to doubt whether it really was a lily at all.
And the typical defense for worrying (it seems so reasonable) is always that we are not asking anything unreasonable – such as to become a bird, for example. We only wish to fulfill an ambition we have not yet achieved, even if it seems so trivial to other worried people.
If then, as with the movement of the bird to and fro, comparison incites worry to a passion and manages to tear us loose from the soil, for the soil is our willingness to be what we are created to be, then it seems as if comparison has now come to take us to our desired goal. And it certainly does come and fetch us, but only as death comes to fetch a person. It lets the worried one perish on the fluttering wings of despondency.
So what can the anxiety-ridden person learn from the lilies ?
He learns to be content with being a human being and not to worry about the differences between one person and another. He learns to speak just as concisely, just as solemnly, and just as inspiringly about being a human being as the Gospel speaks about the lilies.
Let us consider Solomon. When dressed in royal splendor the one speaking says: Your Majesty. But when the most solemn speech of eternity is spoken, then we say: Man!
And in the decisive moment of death when all differences are abolished, we say: Man! And in saying this we are not speaking disdainfully. On the contrary, we are uttering the highest of expressions. For to be a human being is not something lower than the differences we humans invent, but is high, high above them.
Worldly anxiety has its basis in a person’s unwillingness to be content with being a human being and in his anxious craving for distinction by way of comparison. True, worry about making a living, or as it is more commonly put, worries about the necessities of life, is not exactly an invention of comparison.
Nevertheless, should we not be able to learn a lot about this anxiety from the lilies and birds ?
If we cannot, without a smile, think of the lily’s desire to become a Crown Imperial then think of its dying on the way. Oh, let us bear in mind that it is rather something to weep over that we too become just as foolishly worried, yes, just as foolishly."
(From "Søren Kierkegaard, Upbuilding Discourses")
Provocations; Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, by Charles E. Moore