A Butterfly Is Born

The butterfly is a resilient role model that can teach us how to be soulful, determined, and courageous in times of change.

BY: Ptolemy Tompkins

 
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Change, runs the cliché, is good. But it’s also difficult. To lose a few pounds, break a bad habit…those things, for most of us, are pretty doable. But to change on a deep level—to really and truly become different from what we were before—that’s another matter entirely.

That’s why, when discussing spiritual transformation—the most difficult, most challenging variety of change there is—people have so often brought up the most singularly miraculous transformation in all of nature: when the humble caterpillar becomes that airy, flower-flitting, nectar-drinking, quintessentially heavenly creature called the butterfly.

But that, of course, is just the point. One day, after weeks or months of crawling around, eating, shedding its skin (caterpillars normally do this five times), and avoiding being eaten (a daunting task, as countless birds and animals depend on them for food), the caterpillar gets a courageous new inspiration. It finds a safe, secure spot—the branch of a tree perhaps, or the ceiling of a back porch—and hangs itself from a little anchor of silk. It then sheds its skin for the final time, and turns into a hard, peapod-shaped object called a pupa (from the Latin for “doll,” a reference to the object’s resemblance to a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.

In many species, as the pupa hardens, small, golden spots appear on its surface, spots which give the pupa its other, more familiar name of chrysalis (from the Greek word for gold). Within the chrysalis, a genuine miracle occurs. Over a matter of days or weeks, depending on the species, the caterpillar literally disintegrates. Then, out of that pulpy, formless mass, a new creature coheres. A butterfly is born.

It’s a transformation that is as mysterious now as it was in the ancient world. “Most people," Eric Grace writes in his book “The World of the Monarch Butterfly,” “imagine the transition going on in the pupa as a steady merging from one form or the other, with a part-caterpillar, part-butterfly stage halfway. In fact, during the chrysalis stage, the caterpillar is almost completely broken down in a soup of cells before the butterfly becomes built up.”

The caterpillar that wrapped itself up in its chrysalis and the butterfly that ultimately breaks out of it are both the same animal and not the same animal at all. It’s this paradox that makes the miracle of the chrysalis such a vivid metaphor for the transformations of the spirit—that myriad of impossible changes which the soul must undergo on its own journey toward perfection.

Continued on page 2: What can the butterfly teach us about courage and change? »

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