Friday, June 8, 2012

That Never-Promised Rose Garden

If there is one phrase coined in the twentieth century likely still to be repeated a thousand years from now—with the implied authorities of the Bible and Shakespeare combined—it is “I never promised you a rose garden.”

The phrase comes from an autobiographical novel of that title written by Joanne Greenberg and published by St. Martin’s Press in 1964. The heroine of the novel is Deborah. She invents an imaginary Kingdom, called Yr, a paradise. But as schizophrenia takes hold of her, the gods of Yr become tyrannical. She is hospitalized and treated by Dr. Fried, a German woman. The phrase is Dr. Fried’s:

“I never promised you a rose garden. I never promised you perfect justice and I never promised you peace or happiness. My help is that so you can be free to fight for all of these things. The only reality I offer is challenge, and being well is being free to accept it or not at whatever level you are capable. I never promise lies, and the rose-garden world of perfection is a lie...and a bore too!”

This figure is modeled on a real doctor, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (wife of the famed Erich Fromm) who actually treated Greenberg during a bout of mental illness.

Here we have a very basic, archetypal story, a genuine product of the twentieth century. It gives the last century its stamp. The paradise of Yr, the rise of tyrannical evil, madness, a high priestess who consoles but, in the end, promises nothing at all. But the tale describes the visceral feel of this dimension, hence that phrase resonates. And will continue to do so.

It didn’t take long, however, before its darkness was illuminated slightly by the popular culture in a top-ranking song written by Joe South and sung by the country-music star Lynn Anderson (1971). Here is its refrain:

I beg your pardon,
I never promised you a rose garden.
Along with the sunshine,
There's gotta be a little rain sometimes.
     [Joe South, “Rose Garden”]

Where do we find the real voice of our times? In its cultural expressions. Paradise, expulsion, the angel with the flaming sword, madness, and redemption. And it produces phrases and images that come to mind quite spontaneously when something in us wants to remind us that, ultimately, we are responsible for our life. As it did to me this morning—and I got curious about its origins.

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