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Reflections On Resilience

Progression of dandelion painting

Part One: Tiny Suns Amid Green Galaxies

In early spring, amid the earlier quarantines, I watched dandelions grow outside my window. At first, subtly and hidden among the blades of grass. Then budding, bursting yellow amid green galaxies. These tiny suns danced in April’s wind and their scent carried morning’s dew and earth-like warmth into midday, until the smells of grills and barbecues took stage. The bumblebees buzzed and butterflies fluttered on their soft petals, bouncing to-and-fro, carrying nature’s gold. The dandelions filled the lawn and each morning I gazed upon them. In their brightness, after long, lonely days, my face too reflected their gentle hues.

I sat among them one afternoon and remembered that these dandelions too grew in the cement cracks of childhood playgrounds, just freed of frost. They would welcome us to seasons and stories of outdoor play. We plucked some dandelions to decorate ourselves. Others we watched until they grew white parachutes that could gently carry our young wishes. They taught us how life begets life and how the wind carries their seeds to new lands for new growth. Each parachute’s flight gave way for us to dream of what life awaited it — for us to imagine how we too would fly away and find a place to grow our own taproots.

Yet, there would always come a morning when we would return to the playgrounds to see their torn-up stems, witnessing havoc wrought by the cold blades of pitiless lawnmowers. Sometimes, they were drowned in chemicals from factories with cement smog towers. We were told to keep our wishes for our birthday candles and to pluck out the communities of dandelions, throwing them out as service — indeed, as good will — for our communities. The people we trusted, those who enforced the rules, had stripped these flowers of their identity of being flowers. We were told to call them weeds, as invasive uselessness that plagued our parents’ attempts at manicured lawns. So, I stopped caring for the dandelions, preferring sunflowers, daffodils and marigolds. The dandelion was cast as a villain — until one day, some years later, I met a gardener who offered me this consideration: “What if we considered weeds as just plants misplaced?”

Then, seeing their luminous yellow that early spring amid the earlier quarantines, I reconsidered how I felt about these flowering herbs that persisted year after year. I had discovered that these dandelions were once loved by many until they fell from grace for interloping on our modern dream of white picket-fenced houses with pristine, green lawns. Yet, no matter how many times the dandelion is cut down, how poor its surrounding soil quality is or how unloved it may be, it persists and grows. Our society may denigrate and strip it of its identity, but it never fails to burst forth with sunny yellow following the coldest of winters. Even if unwelcome in the lush lawns of the prosperous, the dandelion pushes through cement to shine its yellowness throughout the world.

Part Two: Some See a Seed, Some See a Wish

In a lull between conversations on which medications to prescribe to our patients at the state hospital, I looked around at the artwork in my psychiatry attending’s office. Tucked away in a corner was a wooden plaque carved with dandelions and the words, “Some see a weed, some see a wish.”

Perhaps it was after my second or third time reading the plaque that I noted it in my journal. I wondered how those words fit within my reflections. I wondered why my attending chose those words. Was the plaque a gift from a HomeGoods shopper? Was it a pithy adage for positive thinking? Or was it a metaphor for how society views patients with psychiatric illnesses?

The dandelion as a metaphor is vast, but one abstraction of it is as follows. As Dr. Allen Frances asserts in his book Saving Normal, “The power to label is the power to destroy.” When the dandelion was mislabeled as a weed, generations of people like me grew up thinking that there was no longer any value to it and sought to remove it from our communities. I have been thinking a lot about how labels can be helpful (e.g., by reframing emotions) but also harmful (e.g., pigeonholing individuals) in psychiatry. 

One of our patients during my psychiatric clerkship, K., sought treatment for her mental health illness. She was only willing to take mood stabilizers on the condition that we didn’t center our conversation on the label of bipolar disorder. She felt empowered by divorcing this affliction from her personal identity, labeling her emotional episodes as manic or depressed but not labeling herself as bipolar. So, in acknowledging that this diagnosis carried stigma for her, we reframed our treatment plan to be symptom-focused as opposed to diagnosis-driven. Despite the concrete guilt over the personal trauma and numerous hospitalizations related to her condition that weighed down upon her, she persisted through the doubt and loneliness with a singular wish: “I want to choose what I want to be and how I will live.” Like a dandelion, she persisted beyond her label and chose to live.

Part Three: Looking for Perspectives

Whenever I suffer, whenever I fail and whenever I feel like giving up, I look for perspectives from my loved ones, from reading and reflecting, from my lived experiences and now from dandelions. Rethinking dandelions has given me a new perspective on a plant I once easily casted aside as a pervasive weed. Reframing treatments to be identity-conscious as opposed to diagnosis-driven helped K. feel empowered in her mental health journey. Looking for new perspectives may not dull the feelings of pain, grief, failure or inadequacy that come with suffering, but it finds paths to deliver oneself from rock bottom. It helps me to accept my new realities when a defeat or failure closes a door behind which I had imagined would remain open for my future.

When I try to understand what constitutes my ability to overcome adversity, I think diverse perspectives are at its cornerstones — and hope is its drive. Perspectives give me the mind space to think of how best to appraise my current reality and to push forward. However, when I weigh the uncertainties of my future, it is far easier to see the realities in which I will fail and far more difficult to see the ways my dreams could manifest. My perspectives are not born optimistic but are often influenced by the way I think; most of my education has taught me to be driven by data. Unfortunately, data and their statistics are not always in my or many’s favor. Thus, while perspectives are a starting point to build a new reality, hope gives me the will to do so — despite knowing the soil may not be so fertile, leading to feelings of being unwelcome or in doubt.

Finding hope is more elusive than finding perspectives. I have found it through my faith and through narratives and observations, such as in the way dandelions always bloom after the coldest winters. Perhaps the easiest source for me is in my namesake; my parents named me “hope” in Arabic. Yet, however fleeting I feel hope to be, I am grateful to be reminded of it every day in my conversations with others. I choose to carry on the hope that there is something good for me beyond whatever adversity or hardship I have overcome, just as the dandelion pushes past the cement in hope to feel an endless sun.

Featured image courtesy of Amal Cheema.

Amal Cheema Amal Cheema (4 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Geisel School of Medicine

Amal is a writer and medical student at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, class of 2024. She graduated from Wellesley College with a Bachelor of Arts in biochemistry and political science in 2017. Prior to medical school, she pursued a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and a post-baccalaureate in biomedical ethics. Outside of class, you can usually find her writing, reading, baking, or adventuring in the outdoors.