In the early 1600s people went nuts buying tulips in Holland. It was such a craze that the value of a tulip bulb shot up from less than a dollar to the price of a mansion!
This is known as the “tulip bubble” or “tulipmania,” and it’s used to explain all kinds of events. For example, the recent Bitcoin craze. Or the “irrational exuberance” of the early Internet that led to a lot of people losing their shirts.
The main point is that people will get greedy, and this will lead them astray. Instead of buying something that will hold its value, they get caught up in a speculative bubble.
A solid investment would be in something like gold bars. Gold is valuable no matter what. You could have massive inflation, but you’re safe with gold.
That’s how we’ve all heard it. But what if the moral of this story has been presented to us all wrong?
Tulips are amazing plants. First off, they’re beautiful. The first time I saw a tulip grow, I couldn’t believe it.
I was eight years old. A Dutch friend had brought us the bulbs as a gift,and my mom planted them in the flower garden in front of our house. In the spring, they came out of the ground. Every day they made their way up from the soil until they exploded in red, yellow and purple.
Here’s a photo of a field of them in Holland.
Now look at this photo of gold bars.
Not the same experience, is it?
The other amazing thing about tulips (and most other bulbs) is they can be left in a pot with no water or light for a year, and they’ll be fine. Shoots will come up through the bone dry soil. We had to put our tulips away in a closet last year and we assumed that would kill them. Not at all. Shoots are making their way up in the pot as we speak.
Gold can’t do this. It’s not that kind of thing. To get gold, you have to mine it. It doesn’t belong outside of the deep earth where it lives.
I know, I know, gold has monetary value that tulips don’t. Other than during that brief moment when people recognized how wonderful they were, tulips have been cheap. No one thinks of them as an investment anymore.
Money isn’t everything, though. If you were stuck on a desert island, would you rather have a gold bar or a field of tulips? With tulips, you could eat the bulbs, as the Dutch did during World War II, make a shelter from their stems, and of course look at them. Gold? Not.
If you were sick, would you rather sit in bed looking at a gold bar or a pot of tulips?
That’s what happened to me. It was my birthday, about eight months after my accident. I spent most of my time in bed. My neighbor and friend Akee came over with a pot of yellow tulips as a gift.
No matter how bad I felt—how much pain I was in, how lonely I was—the tulips cheered me up. The following year, the tulips returned. They’d been waiting for me. I was doing a bit better, and seeing them again made me realize how far I’d come.
I also had a chance to reflect on friendship. So many of my friends had dropped me after my accident. Akee, who we barely knew, became a close friend. She brought my husband food, took care of our cats when I was in the hospital, and spent time with me just because. She was always upbeat and kind. I wonder if we would’ve survived that first horrible year without her.
If she’d brought me a gold bar, I wouldn’t have had that feeling towards her.
The shocking truth of the tulip bubble
Here’s the most shocking thing of all. It turns out there might never have been a tulip bubble. The whole thing was made up.
According to Smithsonian, tulip fever was a myth. The Dutch Calvinists exaggerated the story. They didn’t want people to get too excited about anything, so they came up with the tulipmania story as a cautionary tale.
They circulated pamphlets, kind of like today’s internet memes, that told of the tulip bubble and how it destroyed people’s lives. These pamphlets were so convincing that the story stuck. For four hundred years.
Too much wealth causes society to fall apart, said these religious folks.
They also said that all the rampant consumerism and general ungodliness brought on the plague. God had to punish people somehow. Nice people, the Dutch Calvinists.
We still pretty much believe in their version of reality. When we get sick, many of us have to fight off the feeling that this is punishment for something we’ve done.
The other thing many people believe is that we shouldn’t be too consumerist. People are consumerist anyway, but they feel that it’s wrong. So, they feel guilty, and go on buying stuff anyway.
The lesson of the cracked bulbs
Here’s one final amazing fact. The tulips that were worth so much were the damaged ones. The bulbs were cracked, and as a result they yielded blooms with stripes of color and other interesting detail.
There were people who would pay more for these types of bulbs. They were unusual and special. Why? Because they were damaged.
This, to me, is the most crucial forgotten lesson. We search for perfection. We look down on people who are “damaged.” Or we feel that our own cracked places make us “damaged goods” instead of beautiful, special and valuable.
Those cracked tulips teach us that we can see ourselves as more beautiful because of our broken parts. Damaged goods, in 1600s Holland, were the ones that cost the most.
Imagine if that message had been the one that stuck? What a different world we’d be living in.
It’s not too late. We can take it in right now and start a new future that puts the broken of us on the top of the heap.
Whether you’re sick, disabled, dealing with the long term effects of a painful childhood…whatever it is, think of those cracked bulbs. Remind yourself that people paid more for them, because the tulips that sprang from them were beautiful in a way that no other flowers were.