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Absolutes are rarely absolute
Feb. 13, 2012
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by Ivan Raconteur

I read a short article recently that was optimistically presented as a list of plants that one could not kill.

I knew from the start that it was a bunch of hokum, because I have been killing plants for years.

It is true I have not had experience with every variety of plant that is out there, but I have seen enough to foster a healthy degree of skepticism when it comes to claims of floral immortality.

It is not that I don’t want to grow plants. I grew up in a house that was overflowing with plants, and I have always maintained a sort of detached affection for their leafy greenness.

My mother could make anything grow, and in addition to having plants of every description hanging in front of windows and perched on sills throughout the house, she cultivated every spare inch of her small yard and filled it with a startling array of plant life.

Despite my mother’s gardening ability, it became clear from an early age that I was endowed with two black thumbs.

I laughed when I read in the recent article that the venerable spider plant is one that the author deemed indestructible.

The name is objectionable, but the plants are attractive enough, and I have started several of them over the years, and have managed to kill every one of them.

The same fate has met other plants that I have selected, after careful consultation with greenhouse staff.

It is true that some took longer to kill than others, but my black thumbs have always emerged victorious in the end.

If an indestructible plant exists, I have yet to run across it.

The concept of a plant that can’t be killed is similar to other absolute statements that we have all heard before.

If someone says something can’t happen, this is almost a guarantee that it will happen.

For example, if someone is giving me directions, and says, “you can’t miss it,” I know right away I am doomed to blunder around in some trackless wasteland, because of course I will miss it and will have to employ all of my orienteering skills just to find my way back to civilization, and I may never see the place I am setting out to find.

Another sign of imminent failure is when someone lays out a plan “that can’t fail.”

Foolproof plans have formed the basis for many an entertaining film or work of literary fiction.

They have also provided fodder for many a news story.

Foolproof plans may vary widely in scope and complexity, but one thing we can say with near certainty is that when someone hatches a plan that can’t fail, we can be assured it won’t succeed.

Marketing people seem to be enamored of absolute phrases.

They hook anglers with fishing lures that can’t fail to catch fish; they tout equipment that can’t fail to help one lose weight and inches overnight; and they taunt the follicly challenged by promoting snake oil that is guaranteed to grow hair.

Of course, when these products fail, which they almost certainly will, the promoters will say it is not due to any fault of the product, but to user error.

In addition to following the money, a prudent person will also read the small print, and note any pertinent disclaimers when making a purchase.

Perhaps more importantly, a sensible individual will run like the wind in the opposite direction any time someone launches into a pitch about something that can’t fail, because absolute statements are rarely absolute, and a guarantee of success is most often a recipe for failure, if not flat out disaster.

Getting back to that article about plants – as a black-thumbed would-be gardener, I am convinced that the only plant that truly can’t be killed is one that is made of plastic and therefore not alive in the first place.

They may not provide the benefits that live plants offer, but they stay green a lot longer, and they require very little maintenance.


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