Ask any three people for a symbol of transformation, and you can count on it at least one of them will mention the butterfly. It is and remains a beautiful image: the insignificant and often ugly caterpillar who will wrap himself in his silk bud or cocoon and emerge like a glorious winged creature. It is an image we remind each other of when things get tough, and we gladly pass it on to our children. One of my favorite children’s books is about just this (very hungry) little creature…
I had always taken the butterfly — and the transformation it stood for — for granted; the image had long turned into a cliché, like all clichés losing its taste and its sting in the process. We use the symbol, but we no longer know what it means.
Fortunately years ago, reading Bill Plotkin’s Soulcraft, a book on how personal transformation is attained not only by reaching higher for your better self but also by descending into the darkness of your subconscious , I changed my mind about the butterfly completely.
You see, I used to think that when the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the process going on inside would be something resembling our human adolescence. Just like our kids have their voices, curves or muscles change almost overnight, I reckoned the caterpillar’s shape would evolve, its body would become thinner and more elongated, and somehow from the surplus substance the wings would grow out. It turns out that isn’t what happens at all.
If you were to open the chrysalis halfway through its nympha stage, Plotkin asserts, emerging from the capsule would not be some hybrid creature, half caterpillar half butterfly, but a puddle of liquid.
In order to be able to become a butterfly, the caterpillar has to fall apart completely, decompose down to its very essence, devoid of any shape or consciousness. It literally dies. There is nothing left of it.
And from this liquid essence, the butterfly starts to put itself together, from scratch.
Ever since I first came across this image almost ten years ago, I have stood in awe for its depth and force.
We sometimes say we want life to change, but we don’t, really.
For in order for life to change, we need to change ourselves. But to live through a metamorphosis such as we claim we crave, we have to surrender everything.
The human psyche can (and will) very often mistake the familiar with the good. We will cling to what we know, even if it is unhealthy or it is making us miserable, just to feel we understand what’s going on and have some sort of control over it. Now we are told we have to allow the old world inside of us, our habits, beliefs, our fears and footholds, to die and disintegrate.
But isn’t that scary, then?
Of course it is! It’s terrifying. That’s why the image of the butterfly is so pertinent as a symbol of change. It has nothing to do with a cosy nap inside a soft time capsule, followed by the fluttering of delicate wings. It’s about surrendering yourself to the darkness, dying and disintegrating until there is nothing — nothing whatsoever — left of you. Only then can your soul put itself back together again.
All too often, when we say we want to change, we conveniently forget about that and instead in our heads we to jump straight to the part where we emerge transformed.
Unfortunately, there can be no resurrection unless you died first.
Ten years ago, around the time of reading Soulcraft, I was going through exactly this kind of phase. My life was upside down and I could see the walls coming down around me. Everything about me was being taken apart, all the way down to the foundations. I had no control over any of it, but I was very conscious about what was happening to me. It didn’t make it any less frightening. But I had no choice but to lean into it, and wait for the end of the challenging and painful process to find out what building materials would be left at my disposal for me to start rebuilding myself.
It turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences of my life.
Looking around me today, at the world, at myself and those I love, I find very little reason to doubt: we are going through a time of massive change.
To all those who find themselves at the entrance of that dark and frightening road descending inside, who are hesitating to surrender to the darkness that will embrace them, strip them bare and tear them apart until all that is left is the very essence from which to start over, I wish you all of courage and faith.
No matter how scary it gets down there, the dark tends to be gentler than you think.
And at the end of the path there will be sunlight. And wings.