Stored within me from years of spiritual philosophy studies is the idea that nature exists as a method of teaching us about our own humanity. Rain hits dry ground to teach us of thirst. Wind knocks a tumbleweed down the road to teach us to be rooted. A butterfly emerges from her cocoon to teach us we can be transformed. In this avenue of thought, metamorphosis in particular is a power within us only truly accessible through metaphor with natural phenomenon. To transform over time into more and more of our true self is the great process of our time on this earth.
Our cultural fixation on the beginning and the end – on the caterpillar and the butterfly – can rob nature’s potent metamorphosis metaphor of its truth. We want the before and after picture but we don’t want what Brené Brown calls the “messy second day.” In the case of the caterpillar, the transformative period is gruesome. Upon birth, the caterpillar grows what’s called “imaginal discs” that will grow into the adult anatomy and are the only bits of its original self to survive. In the chrysalis, the caterpillar literally digests itself into an enzyme soup, turning all but those discs into proteins that are regrown to become its new self. The butterfly then emerges slowly from its own primordial ooze. It is not a sexy process.
Yet most of our life exists in these “becoming” periods of our lives. Unlike the butterfly, we do not transform once but many times. Physically we are always shedding parts of ourselves – another unsexy fact that points to the cost of moving forward. I remember as a kid always wishing for the end product. I saw myself as the beginning picture in the before and after – the nerdy, socially awkward kid who would emerge into a teenager. I was always pretending to be older, imitating adults around me. I was never happy to be who I was unless I had my nose in a book or a moment took me by so much surprise I stopped hiding my childlike glee from the older people around me. The result is that I became an adult who knew how to do everything but enjoy herself. I couldn’t bring with me what I had never learned. I shed the body of a child, but brought with me an inability to exist in the moment or to take joy in finally reaching the number of years I always wanted. In reflecting on my growth from child to teenager to young adult, I can see that some transformations take place with or without our consent but I know now that we have some measure of control over what we can take into the process of becoming new.
I do not pretend to understand the mind of the caterpillar, but I also believe the advantage we have as humans is a self-awareness of our transformations. The painful transition I made from child to adult was marked by an in-between period of immense pain and yearning. The transition from young adult to self-realized human in the past few years has been painful, yes – but also filled with moments of true clarity about the losses I’m actually mourning and grieving. In childhood we change without naming those changes. In adulthood we begin to have the language we need to describe our own march through time. The self-awareness we possess means that over time we can begin to control and own our metamorphosis. I can feel myself growing as a person, and this time I have chosen what I want to take with me and what I want to leave behind. The soup that has been my twenties has taught me what hurts me and what fills me up. Every mistake I’ve made has ripped me open to reveal the wound that produced my choices. Some of them I have healed. Some I will continually heal until the day my journey ends.
Perhaps the thing I’ve learned most from my meditation on the life of a butterfly is that complexities inside of us each have their own metamorphosis to take. Depending on how large a piece of our identity that part of us played, the transformation can be more painful and acute than others. I think of Marilynne Robinson’s idea from Gilead: “Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations..” We have buildings and beings in us constantly being torn down and built back up new. The church goer in me that served with unquestioning devotion was burned to the ground and razed up to someone striving to love unconditionally. The perfectionist in me was torn down and created into a woman who works hard but can walk away. The child in me who couldn’t wait to grow up has been slowly regrown into an adult who is excited by the wisdom that more years will bring but delighted by the moment I’m in right now. The landscape of our inner self is a changing place where pain and joy can exist side by side with destruction and rebirth.
All of this is perhaps less pithy than, “Every caterpillar turns into a butterfly.” But for me, the complex full truth is more soothing than a quotable half-truth. When we sense discomfort in ourselves as a reaction to a mistake we’ve made or as a response to the circumstances of life around us, I find it soothing to imagine it as a pain of transformation – a pain I share with every caterpillar and also every human. To understand the power of metamorphosis is to understand the value of the in-between times we find ourselves in and know that in those times we can build the habits and ideas and pieces of ourselves we want to take with us into the next stage of our lives.
I received a pair of butterfly earrings in the mail last month and balked at their feminine energy before quickly pawning them off to the only little girl I know. Maybe next time I’ll see them as more than the pretty, childish symbol I’ve always associated with the hungry caterpillar’s final costume – maybe I won’t. There are still parts of me waiting to be transformed.
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