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  • Nick McDonald

When Life Deals You Turnips...



I would like to talk with you about the phrase, “You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip”.

I like this phrase. Somebody once said it to me, I don’t remember why. I was in the South, and at first I thought they were just making conversation about turnips, which seemed to me - a born and bred Yankee - a likely enough thing to happen in the South.

“Oh,” I said. “That makes sense.”

But their misty-eyed expression told me I had missed the point somehow.

“Ah,” I said, trying again. “You’re right.”

After I thought about it for a day, I realized the phrase meant something like, “Stop trying to force this other person to do something they can’t do.” I think.

But for the next few weeks, I had so many questions.


First. What, exactly, is a turnip? I’ve never eaten one. I’ve never seen one. Do they exist? If so, who has them?

Second. Who wants to squeeze blood out of a turnip, exactly? A starving vampire, wandering the Nebraskan planes at night? A woman locked in a room filled with yellow wallpaper for twenty years? The people who invented the “Impossible Whopper”? That’s about the closest thing I can think of to actually squeezing blood from a turnip.

Who can say, really?

That was nearly a decade ago. But in the past week, I’ve been returning to this phrase, “You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip”.

And I’ve decided…it doesn’t map onto my experience.

Because, see, I have squeezed blood from a turnip.

Or at least, I’ve been in seasons of life where it felt like I was squeezing blood from a turnip. Yes, sometimes life deals you lemons. Then - to stay with the folksy metaphor theme - you make lemonade. Sure. I get that.

But making lemonade is easy. Even Yankees know that phrase.

What about when life deals you turnips? What if you’re in a season where you’re squeezing turnips for hours, for weeks, for months, for years…just hoping to see a little ounce of blood? (Or…turnipade? I guess? Gross.)

What if, no matter how many times you have the same conversation with your child, nothing changes? What if you’ve worked for years on a start-up, and you’re still not making a profit? What if you keep sitting down to pray, and your mind starts wondering which Disney character you are, so you take that online test just again to be sure you’re ACTUALLY Flynn Rider even if you adjust that one answer to “decidedly introverted”?

Sorry, too specific.


The point is, sometimes life deals you turnips. Not lemons. To answer my own question, the people who try to squeeze blood from a turnip - in my experience - are the people who don’t have any other choice. After all, who would choose to spend their days squeezing blood from turnips, when there are people literally right next door with perfectly crimped hair pontificating about life dealing them lemons? Why keep squeezing?

Here’s one reason: when life deals you turnips, you're forced into expertise.

This isn’t meant to be some existential justification for hard things in life, so don’t take it that way. But here’s the thing I’ve been thinking about: if life only dealt you lemons, you could get away with making lemonade. You wouldn’t even need to be that good at squeezing. You could be making major mistakes. For example, you might not turn the lemon over and squeeze it from the backside, which will get you about 30% more juice. No, you won’t do that, because life dealt you lemons you privileged prima donna, and you can still make lemonade without even so much as mastering the art of food squeezing.


But if life dealt you turnips?


Let me tell you.

You’re going to turn that turnip over. You’re going to use your butcher knife and flatten that thing. You’re going to put it through a mesh strainer and press. You’re going to try it in the blender, trust me. You’ll try the blender eventually. You’ve found 101 tactics for squeezing blood out of a turnip, because at the end of the day, life dealt you turnips.


Not lemons.


Which means life requires more mastery of you than it does your neighbor. A lemon-filled life can hide incompetence, or laziness. But with turnips? Turnips require expertise. No expertise, zero blood. Not “less”. Zero. The results are black and white. And that’s a benefit to you, because at some point, life will deal you lemons.


Here’s what I’ve been thinking, lately: I’m thankful for the hard seasons of work in my life. I’m thankful for the times when I had the same conversation with a freshman every week for a year, only to hear him invite his friends to the other campus ministry, the one doing a series called "Ten Spiritual Lessons We Learned From Tiger King." It would be easy, in these moments, to sink into a pit of self-pitying despair. It would be easy to inch just one step closer to being the type of person who indiscernably rants under their breath at most social gatherings. It would be understandable, too.

But you can also head the other direction. You can learn. You can observe. You can refine. You can keep working until you bleed that turnip. People with lemons don’t have to be experts to get results. People dealt turnips? We do.

And so when life deals us lemons, we know exactly what to do.

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