Why It’s Better To Be a Warrior in a Garden Than To Be a Gardener in a War

There is a saying that I came across recently, which struck a chord with me — “It’s better to be a warrior in a garden than to be a gardener in a war.”

It very much sums up why I turned to martial arts at a young age, after regularly getting beat up by older kids. You always need to prepare for the worst case.

Read on to learn where this saying originated, what nuances it entails, and how you can apply it to your own life.

What Does It Mean?

When you are a warrior in a garden, you might not excel at taking care of the flowers — like a gardener would — but you can still do an alright job.

But when you are a gardener in a war, you are dead.

So, at its fundamental level, the saying, “It’s better to be a warrior in a garden than to be a gardener in a war” is about preparedness. You need to be ready at for the worst that life can throw at you.

The saying is also about acknowledging reality. The warrior prepares for the worst case because he understands it will inevitably come.

The gardener (or the artist) ignores that reality because he is focused on the divine. It’s a noble endeavor, but a risky one. Once reality kicks in, it kicks the gardener right in the face.

And finally, “It’s better to be a warrior in a garden than to be a gardener in a war” is about delayed gratification.

The warrior puts himself through a brutal training regimen now and gets rewarded for it later. When war comes, he survives.

The gardener chooses what is appealing to him now but pays for that choice later. When war comes, he dies.

The Warrior vs. The Gardener

Here are the differences between the two archetypes at a glance:

The WarriorThe Gardener / The Artist
Appreciates the sublime, but focuses on the pragmaticFocuses on the sublime, but ignores the pragmatic
Puts himself through a harsh, painful training regiment now, to survive laterGoes with what is inspiring in the moment, without considering the long-term consequences
Acts humbly, but exudes strengthActs refined, but exudes weakness
Will be respected by others, due to the potential for violenceWill be walked over by others, as any threat of violence is absent
Sees the self-serving nature of people for what it isBelieves in a high ideal that does not correspond to the struggle for power all around
Predicts what is coming and won’t be surprisedMisjudges what is coming and will be deadly surprised

Why You Need To Become a Warrior in a Garden

The ultimate reason to become a warrior in a garden is about freedom; specifically, it’s about freedom from violence.

A Little Backstory

When I was a kid, I got beat up a lot. And that is because I was not in touch in reality. I was a dreamy nerd who didn’t realize how his geekiness was perceived by others. To the second-generation Turkish and Arab kids in my neighborhood, it was a provocation.

One time, I took my bike to the comic bookstore. After I left the store, I was cornered by three older kids that I had never met before. First, they started kicking my bike, then they started kicking me. The oldest one told me they were going to kill me. At that moment, I believed him.

Another time I was looking at a window of a store for model airplanes. The store was closed. While I was dreaming about getting one of these, several older kids approached me, without me noticing. When I did, it was too late. They started hitting and kicking me until an adult intervened.

There were plenty more of these incidents. It got so bad, I was afraid to leave the house. The threat of physical violence was so omnipresent in my mind, it had taken away my ability to roam freely.

I was a prisoner of my own fear.

An Encounter With a Pastor

During that time, I met a pastor, of all people (even as a boy, I was already critical of religion).

But I loved that man. And it was he who taught me about handling violence.

One day, we were discussing the famous “turning the other cheek” doctrine.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

Matthew 5:38

And then my pastor said something that has stuck with me ever since.

“People misunderstand this,” he explained. “They think you are supposed to revel in your own weakness.”

“But the only way you can choose to turn the other cheek is if you know you could easily destroy the other person. You must develop the potential for violence first before you decide against it.”

At that moment, the scales fell from my eyes. He was right. For a “gardener” like me, it was crucial to learn what the warrior could do. Otherwise, I would never be free.

The Aftermath

When this discussion with my pastor happened, I had already started training in judo. But now, I threw myself all in. It had been the explanation I needed.

Being the ultimate gardener, martial arts did not come easy to me. I picked up the moves quickly, but I lacked the fighting spirit. Physically confronting somebody was not in my nature. And getting smashed by more competent opponents reactivated old fears.

Then there were the injuries. I broke my collarbone — three times. I tore my meniscus and had to get surgery. After a competition, I spent a night at the hospital with a brain concussion. I broke my nose so bad, I couldn’t breathe for weeks.

But consistency eventually wins out over anything. Around the age of sixteen, I got my black belt in judo. Then, after a stint in Muay Thai, I got really into Brazilian jiu-jitsu. After ten years of training, I got my black belt there, too.

I even turned martial arts into my living. For about seven years, I ran an MMA school full-time, before selling it to one of my students.

Not accidentally, many of my students during that time were like me — scrawny nerds. Today, some of these students are Pro MMA fighters. Few people would dare mess with them. By becoming warriors in a garden, they have achieved freedom from violence themselves.

Where Does the Saying Come From?

“It’s better to be a warrior in a garden than to be a gardener in a war” is supposedly a Chinese proverb.

There is a slightly longer version of the quote floating around the internet, which goes like this:

A student said to his master: “You teach me fighting, but you talk about peace. How do you reconcile the two?” The master replied: “It is better to be a warrior in a garden than to be a gardener in a war.”

Neither the short nor the long version occur in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” as often claimed.

The saying also doesn’t seem to be from another classic Chinese text, “Records Of The Grand Historian,” as occasionally stated.

There is, however, a verified Latin quote, similar in meaning — “Si vis pacem, para bellum” which translates to, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” This quote can be traced back to Roman author Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus.

Looking at the recent spike in search traffic for this quote, I suspect it’s a made-up quote that went viral. That doesn’t take away from its well-made point, though.

How To Apply This to Your Life

How can you apply, “It is better to be a warrior in a garden than to be a gardener in a war” to your own life? Here are a few ideas.

1. Acknowledge Reality

In the age of political correctness, many people subscribe to a vanilla worldview. They believe that if we all just tried a little bit harder, we could make the world a place free of conflict.

Usually, this claim is made by people who grew up being overly protected. In their little bubble, physical violence was absent. So they assume it could be like this for everybody.

That’s an illusion.

First, the world is a place of limited resources. There is only so much money, power, and sex to go around. Hence, why people are going to compete over these resources. At some point, that is going to lead to violence.

It cannot be avoided. There is always going to be someone who won’t play by the rules. As soon as that happens, you have to match them, or you will go under.

Second, it is a sad fact of life that some people enjoy seeing other people suffer. It gives them pleasure to exert violence, as they experience themselves as powerful. That, too, is not going to go away.

There is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others.

Niccolò Machiavelli

The worst case inevitably comes, and you need to be ready for it. One of the best ways to do so is to learn a full-contact martial art.

2. Learn an “Alive” Martial Art

To be ready for violence, you need to learn a martial art. But not just any.

Imagine you were taking driving lessons. But instead of driving the car, you were just sitting in it and pretending to drive.

This is how most martial arts are taught (karate, Wing Chun, Krav Maga, etc.). You practice choreographed moves, but you never actually fight.

Of course, you won’t learn anything this way.

That’s why you must pick an “alive” martial art, like boxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, judo, or Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Here, a significant amount of each training session – at least 30 percent – is dedicated to uncooperative sparring.

That means you can do to them what they can do to you.

If you train in Muay Thai, you can both hit each other. If you practice wrestling, you can both throw each other to the ground. If you are doing BJJ, you can both armlock and choke each other.

Training in this “anything goes” mode will give you an edge over 95 percent of all the attackers out there.

3. Embrace the Fear

There is a reason why most people would rather train in Krav Maga than in MMA.

Krav Maga and other such systems promise to turn you into a deadly weapon, but without having to confront adversity. There is zero danger of getting hit in the face.

Not surprisingly, these martial arts cater to academic and artsy types — “gardeners.” These people want to overcome their fear of violence, but they don’t want to pay the price.

There is no shortcut, though. To learn how to deal with physical violence, you must experience it. During sparring, you must face your fear again and again, until you become desensitized to it.

It is this mental desensitization that will make all the difference. When you spend a few years getting punished by professional fighters, the violence out there will almost feel underwhelming.

4. Don’t Get Cocky

It’s tempting for a gardener-turned-warrior to get cocky.

Once I had a few years of judo and some Muay Thai under my belt, things changed for the better. I was largely left alone.

But now, I was stoking up the fire. If I caught some bully assessing me, I would actively encourage him. I was itching to get payback. Fortunately, it never happened.

Don’t be stupid like me. Feeling free from the fear of violence is fantastic; that’s why everybody should learn how to fight in the gym.

But hurting some hooligan in the streets might have lifelong legal, financial, and emotional consequences. Unless it’s a life-or-death situation, it’s not worth it. Just walk away.

5. Stay Cautious

Another reason to not get cocky is that there is always someone more ruthless than you.

In a one-on-one situation, learning to fight will give you an edge over almost anybody. But many bullies hunt in packs. Some people carry knives or guns. And a few lost souls have been to war and don’t feel remorse anymore.

Consider the long-term consequences. Is the chance of feeling like Superman worth the risk of getting stabbed or shot?

Learn to fight so that you won’t feel like a victim anymore. But then also be smart about what risks you take.

6. Don’t Hate

When you experience physical violence, it is tempting to grow resentful or even hateful.

Almost all of the kids that beat me up were second-generation immigrants. It would have to been easy for me to adopt a xenophobic attitude.

But when you let your hate run free, you are just making things worse for yourself. You are buying into a victim mindset. That is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw.

What instances of violence must teach us is that we are completely responsible for ourselves. It is our job to understand how this situation came about and why we were defenseless.

Violence is a wake-up call — you must awaken to yourself.

I was a massive nerd, and I was not aware of it. I simply assumed the world would be full of other comic-book-reading, model-air-plane-loving weirdos. I did not realize how my naivety triggered other people. That lack of self-awareness was my fault, nobody else’s.

It might sound strange, but I am thankful this happened to me. I know plenty of people who were never confronted with violence, but they are not better off for it. They are still unaware.

7. Apply This to Other Areas of Life

The notion of being a warrior in a garden doesn’t just apply to physical violence. There are other battles in life you must prepare for.

a) The Economic Battle

Just like most people cannot control a fight, they cannot control their economic destiny. They could lose their job anytime — if there is a recession, if your company gets bought, if your boss doesn’t like you, etc.

To prevent this, you must build valuable professional skills (just like you built your fighting skills). If you can perform an in-demand service, like programming or digital marketing, you will never go hungry.

You must build these skills while still being employed; that’s the equivalent of training for war during peaceful times.

Granted, this is grueling. When you are already working 40 hours per week, spending another 20 hours on learning will push you to the max. Most people won’t bother. But that is also why most people go under in a war — or a recession.

b) The Sexual Battle

We all want to be with the most attractive partner possible, howsoever you define that (physical attractiveness, personality, financial success, status, etc.).

But most people, especially most men, have no skill whatsoever when it comes to meeting people. For that reason, they will hold on to the first mildly attractive person they meet.

Don’t be one of these people. Learn to talk to strangers. Just by fishing in a bigger pond, you will stack the odds in your favor.

Also, when in a relationship, always remain attractive. Stay fit, increase your economic value, and engage in harmless flirting. Should things go sour, you’ll have options.

c) Natural Disasters, Wars, Pandemics

For decades, in the West, we were spoiled by political and economic stability. And we assumed things would continue like that.

That is a case of wishful thinking. Historically speaking, stability never lasts. Natural disasters, wars, and pandemics are a constant.

And we are slowly starting to realize this. Climate change, Covid, and the new cold war made sure of that.

So, how can you prepare for a global crisis?

In my opinion, the most important measure is to be highly mobile.

There are two ingredients to that.

First, you need to get rid of your material belongings, aka practice extreme minimalism. In a crisis, most people will die because they wait for too long to get to safety. The reason — they won’t leave their stuff behind.

Second, you need to have a money-making skill that you can take with you. This will guarantee your economic survival in your new destination.

Some people go even further. They get multiple passports, acquire outdoor survival skills, and create hidden stashes with food and weapons. The whole prepper thing.

I am not a fan of the fearmongering in the prepper scene; but in principle, they have the right idea. You need to prepare in peaceful times, so you are ready when disaster strikes.

2 thoughts on “Why It’s Better To Be a Warrior in a Garden Than To Be a Gardener in a War”

  1. Great post Niels. America culture has been coddled and emasculated for years. Thankful for how God used that pastor in your life in rightly applying the “turn the other cheek” passage. Also, the issue of taking “ownership” is hard work but ultimately rewarding. Good job articulating your journey. God bless brother.

  2. Yes I love it too, great post, thank you.
    Could you also elaborate on social/verbal attack, i.e. humiliation, disrespect, backbiting, yelling, anger,…?


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