Orchids have a reputation for being finicky and delicate, of needing special care and unique conditions to thrive. They are also known for their dramatic and compelling beauty, the reward for the work and patience it takes to coax them to bloom. These qualities of the orchid are the inspiration for the term “Orchid Children”. It describes a child who is naturally vulnerable and sensitive to their environment, to both positive and negative influences. If given understanding, support and ongoing attention, they will blossom into an especially exquisite flower. But without this care, they may wither and harden from neglect and poor nourishment, never realizing their potential, often declining into lifelong difficulty. (For more on Orchid Children go to David Dobbs’ Atlantic article, The Science of Success.)
At the other end of the spectrum are the Dandelion Children, those whose natural resilience allows them to reliably bloom in vastly variable family environments, with either plentiful or meager care. And there are all the flowers in between, some more fragile, others more hardy. The dependable azaleas, the tender wildflowers of the forest floor, the robust dahlias and the delicate columbines.
In the end we are all Flower Children, feeding on inner and outer nutrients in the hope that we will have enough to fully unfold, to be ourselves without shame or hesitation, allowing our unique and universal beauty to manifest in this fleeting world for all to see. Until, in time, like all things, we are gone.
What happens to untended Orchid Children when they grow up? I can answer for myself. I was one of those many orchids who was not properly nourished. I am still pained by invalidating situations – feeling unseen and disconnected – and easily buoyed by genuine support – opening like a flower shot in time-lapsed photography. I have spent a lifetime trying to bloom properly, on a journey to find the care I always needed. Adulthood has been an ongoing course in remedial resilience. The early lack of reassurance and caring attention has left deep scarring that sometimes keeps the emerging bud hidden, even from myself.
My spiritual journey – through Buddha dharma, the natural world and other traditions – has given me perspective on this, has taught me how to have space with the anguish and the delight. It has offered a refuge that both values and cultivates a sensitive inner nature.
Many years ago, I developed a similar metaphor to the orchid, the Harpsichord Human. An musician friend had in her home a beautiful hand-built harpsichord. This instrument lived in its own room and, as she explained, was very sensitive to humidity, temperature and other environmental influences. At times, it played poorly, out of tune, without the proper precision or familiar spirited tone. But if conditions were right, it was exquisite and strong, creating sounds that moved and amazed. I identified with this box of wood and metal, knowing I also had the conditional potential to either resonate with exceptional beauty or to be dull, depressed and discordant. Some of my psychotherapy clients – no doubt aging Orchid Adults – also fit this description and I shared the story of the harpsichord with them. We worked to call attention to the beauty of their bloom and we explored how to mitigate the conditions that cause it to wilt. Being an Orchid Adult is a bad news, good news condition, both news stemming from a depth of sensitivity.
What does all this have to do with The Big Trip? I, like most Orchid Adults, am an introvert, naturally quiet, reflective and easily overstimulated by social contact. The early and ongoing disregard for my orchid nature caused my introversion to degrade into shyness and social anxiety. Human interaction became an uneasy enterprise, with shame and humiliation always nearby, ready to pounce. I am less shy now – in large part from the healing power of meditation. But I remain an introvert in an extroverted job, frequently speaking publicly and working intensively with groups and individuals. You could say I am a sheep in wolf’s clothing. After years of this work, my inner orchid is depleted of resources, the delicate petals bruised and battered by the commotion and impositions of the extroverted world. (For more on introverts in society, I highly recommend Susan Cain’s book, Quiet.)
I need restoration through return to environments conducive to my sensitive and solitary temperament. For awhile, I want to solely follow the lead of my blooming flower instead of being stuck in fatigued and stifled in the holding pattern of the daily grind. More often, I need to quietly lift my face toward the silent sun and star light, feel the rush of open air on exposed skin and listen attentively “to the sounds old Mother Earth still makes — all on her own.”