Take the cliché “stop and smell the roses.” This idiom is so widespread in our culture, and its meaning so clear, I doubt a single person reading this will not have heard the phrase before reading it here. The wisdom in this idiom is that one needs to pause every once in a while, and stop rushing through life. At first blush, it is patently obvious one must pause and rest and take notice of their surroundings. Yet how many Americans do? We are currently having an epidemic of work; long hours (not all at the same job), where individuals are expected to work 50, 60, or even 80 hours per week just to make ends meet. When one is rushing from a second job to a third job, what time does one have to “stop and smell the roses?”
The idiom is meant to be a way to encourage us to stop and have some leisure. For this exercise, let us step quite literally into the idiom. Stopping to smell a rose does not provide any commercial benefit (unless one enters a nursery/florist and end up buying the rose bush). In order to take a moment to smell a rose, there are many things that must happen. The act is not as straightforward as it might seem at a glance.
First, one must become aware of the plant. Roses are good for this when they are in bloom because they provide vibrant colors, the red and pink petals often catching one’s attention, should they be interested. Yet the mere presence or knowledge of a nearby plant doesn’t mean one will want to stop and smell it. There must be a certain set of circumstances that will not only allows one to smell it but compels one to draw closer to smell it. The rose being placed on the front porch of a stranger may make it customarily less approachable than the bush next to the sidewalk. One’s disposition and health must also be aligned in order to have this experience. If I am already late to catch the bus, I have no time to stop and smell roses. If my nasal cavity is plugged up due to a cold, whether I stop or not, I will not be able to smell the rose. Even if all the external circumstances align, one must have some mental state of wanting to smell the rose. Our minds desires are not clearly articulable, so it is difficult to know when one will mentally be prepared to experience a scent. If I stopped and smelled every flower I passed, I would never get anywhere in downtown areas, where old houses grow all kinds of wonderful shrubbery.
Once one is aware of the plant and is under the right circumstances to be able to approach it, one must then begin to physically move closer to the plant. Stepping closer one can kneel, or if the plant is taller, lean one’s face slightly towards the rose bush. After maneuvering one’s self into the physical space with the rose, one must orient their sense of smell towards the flower. With our species’ deprecated sense of smell, only the strongest scents grab our attention. The smell of too much cologne, or a pile of fresh manure, may force themselves into our awareness, but many other scents, including that of the rose, are too subtle for force their way into our awareness without a re-orienting toward the smell. One must first take note of their current sense of smell. In doing so, one may inadvertently notice a mixture of odors that didn’t register in their awareness: the stale car exhaust, one’s own perfume/cologne, rising bread in the nearby bakery, or freshly cut grass from the lawn the rose bush borders.
With one’s body and mind oriented toward the rose, one may now finally begin the process of smelling the rose. First, breath out of the nose to expel the existing scents, and then brin the rose close to one’s nostrils. Breath in, slowly, through the nostrils. The slow breath will allow the rose to be in contact with the aromatic particles of the rose longer, and allow one to have a heightened, prolonged experience. Expel through the nose again, away from the rose, and repeat.
As one continues smelling the rose, the scent will trigger a reaction in the subject. The sensation may induce vaguely pleasurable feelings in the subject. As one smells the rose, they may notice how different this scent is from other plants with which they are in contact daily. The floral notes may contrast the pine trees that line the street, providing a feeling of freshness. The sensation may also trigger some distant memory, which one cannot help but associate with the smell. Perhaps their mother had a lovely rose bush growing up, and the smell transports them back to a nostalgic scene from their childhood. Or, perhaps in a game of hide-and-seek, the subject remembers thorns tearing into their skin and clothes, realizing only too late that a massive rose bush is not the best hiding spot. Whatever sensation it triggers, there is an underlying experience which is valuable to the subject. This entire process can happen in a matter of seconds. If one is not in a hurry, they may allow themselves to drift in thought, carried by this scent, for several minutes.
Yet we are not a rose smelling society. To keep the lights on, one cannot go about sniffing roses (even florists must manage their business, not to mention the labor involved in growing, arranging, and ultimately selling rose bouquets). How much time can one spend smelling roses before the stress of the affairs of society intrude on their consciousness? If society’s influence has handicapped one’s sense of smell in an individual, how is one supposed to take pause? There are many other worthwhile activities besides rose smelling that one can make time for in order to pause and reflect on a life worth living. , What fulfillment can one hope to glean from a moment with a rose if their mind is trapped in thoughts of their daily life?
This experience is about more than a cost-benefit productivity ratio of how to spend one’s time. If one stops to smell the roses because they think that is what is needed to make a breakthrough at work, or what is needed to recuperate in order to come back and work even harder, then I believe they miss the entire point of the cliché. One’s short time on this earth is not meant to be planned out as a to-do list—fifty hours at work, two days off for weekends, five minutes smelling roses, one-hour walking, and 3 hours of planned ‘unplanned’ time.
Hence, we can look to this short cliché, “stop and smell the roses,” and derive a deeper, more thoughtful understanding of the idiom. Do whatever helps you take pause and reflect. Do not try to be productive. Do not try to clear your head so that you might solve an ongoing problem at work. Pause and enjoy life for the sake of enjoying life itself. Let the moment with the rose be enough.