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Motivate Yourself 109: The African Violet Queen Of Milwaukee

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Milton Erickson
I want to do something different this month.
This month I'm going to tell you a story. It's a true story and is called the African Violet Queen Of Milwaukee.

It starts with a man named Milton Erickson, a famous american psychiatrist, Erickson had helped a man with severe confidence problems and a few months after his therapy had ended the patient rang Milton Erickson because he'd read that he would be teaching in Milwaukee. He asked Dr. Erickson if he could drop in and visit his ageing aunt, she was in a wheelchair and had become very withdrawn and depressed and had even dropped hints to her nephew that she was contemplating suicide.

Erickson agrees to do so, he finishes his workshop and goes to visit this woman to hear her story. Now, Erickson had had polio as a child and walked with sticks so when he rang the doorbell and this lady answered in her wheelchair there was an instant bond between them.
This lady had inherited a lot of money from her family and lived in this huge house with 12 rooms full of antiques, but was alone. she had never married, and never had children.
When she became ill she had enough money to convert her house with ramps and even a lift so that she could move around it and so she took Dr. Erickson on a tour of her home.
All the blinds were closed. It was dark, gloomy, and depressing. As she takes Erickson around she tells him about her life. Before she became ill she was a popular member of the community, was active in her church and had lots of purpose to her life.
But the last few years had been hard for her, the world wasn't wheelchair accessible and even going to church was hard. She employed a man to take her but it was still difficult getting in and out of the car, when she went to church which was rarely, she deliberately arrived late and sat at the back where she wouldn't get in peoples way. She left early so as not to inconvenience everyone as she was lifted down the steps back to the car and so she tells Erickson throughout the tour of her house of how she's become more and more withdrawn and depressed.

Then the last place she took him to was to her greenhouse. Erickson grew up on a farm and so took great interest in the plants she had been growing. As he looks along a shelf he sees that there are pots and pots of little plants, and so he asks about them.
The plants, the lady explained, were cuttings from her African Violets, she was very good with African Violets they're hard to grow and cultivate and she took great pride in growing them. Erickson was mightily impressed and he turned to her and said.

"Your nephew's very worried about you."
"I know he is." She said
"He thinks you may be depressed"
"Well, since the illness that put me in the wheelchair I have become withdrawn and unhappy, yes."
"But" says Erickson "I don't think that's your problem."

The lady brightens up a little and says
"You don't"
"No" says Erickson
"I think the problem is that you haven't been a very good Christian."

Now this woman came from a very moral and Christian background and was quite insulted.

“What do you mean?” she finally managed to ask,

"Well" said Erickson "You have this great gift for growing African violets, you have all this time on your hands, all this money so that you don't need to work And you keep it all to yourself. If I were you, I would get your church newsletter, and membership list. And whenever someone had a birthday, or a death, or a wedding, or an anniversary, or whatever. I would take them one of your beautiful African Violet cuttings as a gift. Get your man to put you in the car and drive you to their house. With your gift for them, your gift of the plant and your gift of your condolences or congratulations, with your christian human presence."

She listens to Erickson telling her this with a resigned admission, she hasn't been the charitable Christian she knows herself to be and will take his advice on board.

After that, Dr. Erickson left and never spoke to the old woman again. But about 10 years later he received a letter from the nephew with a newspaper page. The headline read: “African Violet Queen of Milwaukee Dies... Mourned by Thousands.” they couldn't fit all the people into the church that wanted to come to her memorial service. She had touched so many people in the last years of her life. Always being there to offer congratulations or condolences. Always there for others with nothing more than a plant and her christian human presence.

And when asked by students why he had given her that advice rather than prescribing medication Erickson would say

"I looked all around her life, and everything looked depressing. She lived in this big house all alone. She kept the curtains drawn because she was embarrassed about being in a wheelchair.
It was dark, it was lonely. The only sign of life the I could see in her and in her surroundings were those African Violet Plants. And I thought it would be easier to grow the African Violet parts of her life than to weed out the depression."

And he was right.
She took to heart what he said to her. After he left she began growing Violets throughout her whole home. Windows were opened and light filled the previously dark house.
As her Violets bloomed she would take them to people all over Milwaukee. She made friends and invited them over to see her violets. All of this led to her developing an incredible and fulfilling life of ministering to others.

So, Whenever you start to experience down times, times in which you feel depressed or anxious, your focus can change. Instead of being able to focus on what is positive, when we experience depression or anxiety, we tend to focus on our problems. And if we don't deal with them in a constructive manner, our outlook can become negative and we run the risk of becoming consumed or overwhelmed by our own negativity or worse, feeling helpless and hopeless.

Maybe one of the keys to guarding against having a negative outlook is to deal with problems in the same manner that Dr. Erickson encouraged the African Violet Queen to do.

African Violets
Don’t try to weed out the negatives. Instead, grow the positive parts of your life.
Instead of focusing on your problems, focus on your strengths or on possible solutions to your problems. Try to remember what worked in the past. You are looking for exceptions to your problems or times when you didn’t feel negative.
If you are feeling depressed, think back to a time when you weren’t depressed.
What was different about that time? What were you doing differently that made you happy.
Find the exceptions to your problems. Become proactive in looking for things that cause personal satisfaction. If something made you happy before, no matter how small, start doing those things again.
Become solution focused instead of problem focused and grow your own version of some beautiful African Violets.
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