A friend once told me that his earliest memory was of looking at the potted plants in the garden center of a big department store, and feeling devastated because he could sense the sadness of those plants at being separated from the earth and put into their own little containers. I lost touch with this friend long ago, but this story of his earliest memory stuck with me. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that he was anthropomorphizing. But perhaps the reason I was struck by his story was because I had a faint memory of empathizing with potted plants myself. This kind of all-embracing empathy would be difficult to live with in the world we have created for ourselves. We don't just put plants in pots, or put lone fish in fishbowls; we have severed ourselves from the lifestyles of our ancestors and the relationships they had with elements of the natural world. Even if we were born with this kind of all-embracing empathy, by the time we were even old enough to store experiences in long-term memory, it would have caused us so much pain that we would likely become immune to it, like a doctor becomes immune to the sight of gory wounds. For if potted plants really do experience something akin to sadness at being separated from the earth, and if one really could be sensitive to this, the sadness one would feel would be unbearable.
The story of the ‘sadness of potted plants' became a recurring theme for me, manifesting in myriad different ways. As a graduate student I took a course in mathematical biology, and my course project was a mathematical model of the competition amongst roots systems of neighboring plants. It was both fascinating and horrifying to learn what hostile competition takes place underground! I thought sadly that this was an apt metaphor for the collective unconscious, that society teaches us how to isolate ourselves in little pots so that our ‘root systems' don't strangle one another.
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