The Gift of the Flower

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“You see that flower?” my friend Quays asked me, pointing to a dried-up daffodil propped in an empty glass on his kitchen table. “It’s got a story. You want to hear it?”

daffodil“Sure,” I answered, curious. Quays was an eccentric little guy living on an aging houseboat tied to the side of a canal in an industrial area of Amsterdam. His boat was littered with found objects, broken clocks, seashells, and potted plants growing haphazardly all over the deck.

“Well,” he said, “three weeks ago I was walking home from my girlfriend’s. It was maybe two or three in the morning. She had given me that flower. I was so happy. I was humming a little tune and holding the flower in front of me, like I was singing to it.

“Then two guys came out of the bushes ahead of me. They looked rough. One of them said, ‘Hey, buddy.’ I stopped. They came up on either side of me, and the same guy said, ‘Okay, no trouble. Just give us your money and you can be on your way.’

Quays looked at both of them, back and forth.

“Am I getting mugged?” he asked. “I’ve never been mugged before! That’s cool. Wow! I’ve always wanted to be mugged! Here, I’ve got some money, not so much, but let’s see.” Quays took out some bills crumpled in his pocket and handed it over to the guy.

“Wait a minute,” Quays said. “I might have some more.” He hunted in his coat pockets and pulled out another bill and some change. He dumped the money in the guy’s hand.

“You can have all my money,” Quays said. “You need it more than me. Just one thing, one thing I ask: Just don’t take my flower.”

Quays held up the daffodil.

“You can have anything else. Hey, in fact, if you come home with me I’ve got some more money at home. You can have that too. I don’t live far from here. C’mon.”

Quays started walking, holding his flower in front of him, the two bewildered muggers trying to keep up with him. As they walked, Quays kept talking, telling them they could have whatever money he had at home, it wasn’t much, but he knew he had some. And he’d make them a pot of coffee.

“Do you like coffee? I’ve got some really good coffee, and some little cakes I made too. You can have whatever you want. Just don’t take my flower.”

Quays kept talking away, telling them about all the things he’d give them — except this one thing, holding up the daffodil. “Just don’t take my flower.”

At last one of the muggers stopped him. “Okay buddy,” he said. “Gimme the flower.”

“Oh no!” Quays said. “Not the flower! My girlfriend gave me this. It’s very important.”

“Gimme the flower,” the guy insisted, reaching for it.

Quays pulled away. Then he said, “Okay, look. You can hold it, but you can’t have it, okay? Just hold it until we get home. Be really careful.” He gingerly handed the flower to the mugger.

“So there we were,” Quays told me. “Can you picture it? Walking along together, this tough guy holding the flower in front of him as careful as could be?”

They got to Quay’s houseboat. Quays showed them around the place, and pulled out whatever money he had, making a little pile on the kitchen table. The daffodil sat in a glass of water next to the money. He served the two guys coffee and cakes and whatever else he could find. They talked. Time passed.

Then one of the muggers — the one who had taken Quay’s money on the street — dug into his pocket and pulled out the money. “Here,” he said. “Take your money back. We don’t want it.”

Quays protested, but both muggers were now adamant. “Keep your stupid money. Just shut up now. You keep it.”

Quays finished his story to me: “After that, they left. We even shook hands. They left the money. I told them they could have the flower, but they said I should keep it.”

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I remembered this story of Quays’ flower as we were preparing for the 2015-16 Living Sufism telephone conferences. This year we’ll be exploring "Inner Life and Outer Engagement" — how our inner work can help us respond more wisely and compassionately as the storms of global crises intensify (climate chaos, species extinction, soil loss, ocean acidification, water scarcity, injustice, and mass migrations, to name just a few).

These perils are upon us — like the muggers coming out of the bushes to threaten Quays. Of course, the analogy is not perfect. We won’t reverse this enormous tsunami of problems simply by being unafraid and friendly, as Quays was — although it will help.

Quays’ response to the muggers was the ultimate aikido move — he invited them into his home; he didn’t make them “other.” They couldn’t take his money, because they had been treated like family. He was fearless in his vulnerability — spontaneous, open, friendly, and unafraid.  

But his response shows us something even more profound. Quays held onto the flower and let it be known that the beauty it signified was more precious to him than money. His loyalty to that beauty transformed the situation. “This matters!” he insisted. “This we must protect!”

What is the beauty we are loyal to? What is the flower we must protect? What faithfulness will guide us through the rough times head?