What We Can Learn from Butterflies

Humankind can gleam lessons from its fellow neighbor in the animal kingdom: the butterfly.

Several years ago, I had a vividly haunting dream about butterflies. It affected and inspired me so much so that I went on to write a novel about it. I’m more than halfway through writing it, so stay tuned for that book’s availability down the literary road!

For months prior to writing the book, I researched anything and everything I could get my hands on about these mysterious cold-blooded, near-sighted insects. One of the most fascinating aspects of them is their ability to morph from egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly.

But are we any different than the butterfly?

I think about the famous sphinx riddle:

What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?

The answer is humankind: we are a baby or toddler in the morning of our life; in the prime or afternoon of our life, we walk upright on two legs, and in the evening of our life, we often need assistance (i.e. a cane) to help us remain ambulatory.

Regardless of how we got here, we are in a worldwide pandemic. We are in the pupa stage of a butterfly life cycle as a human race. 

So, what IS the pupa stage?

It’s a resting stage, “where the animal does not eat or move, although great changes occur….Once all the necessary changes have taken place and environmental conditions are favorable, the butterfly is ready to emerge.” (Source: Do Butterflies Bite? by Hazel Davies and Carol A. Butler).

The pandemic has created a forced pause button on the world; we are currently not much different than the butterfly in its pupa stage. Even the amazing doctors, nurses, janitors, Amazon workers, deliverymen and women, supermarket employees—the list goes on and on—even they are forced to alter their way of doing things. We are all, like the mysterious insect who must morph.

There is no one on the planet that is unaffected by COVID-19. Mother Nature is giving us a no opt-out option. I encourage all of us to accept, like the butterfly in its pupa stage, the new reality we find ourselves in and take a moment to pause and reflect. It is when we reflect that real growth begins.

“Who’s the Storyteller?”

We are always narrating the story of our lives. But so is everyone else.

One of the aspects of writing I adore is the gift of perspective. The facts of a story can drastically be altered by mere observer. Take for example the following:

Scene: a restaurant, a couple in their 30’s sits across from each other

POV of observer:

The woman slides a gold band across the table. The man holds his head down and sighs. He takes the ring and puts it in his back pocket. 

“I’m sorry,” he says. 

“Me, too,” she says, her eyes shiny with unshed tears.

POV of woman:

I’m pregnant and the almost stranger sitting across from me is the father. It’s why he proposed last night, offering up a lifetime together the way someone decides to put extra toppings on their pizza—spontaneous and without much thought. 

Yeah, I accepted. Not because I loved the guy or even liked him. I said yes simply because fear eclipsed judgement, because the idea of motherhood solo or an abortion both felt impossible.

When I slide the flimsy band (like something out of a Cracker Jack box) across the table at him, the relief on his face is palpable.

“I’m sorry,” he says—a white lie—one that renders him unable to make eye contact.

“Me, too.” I’m sorry I didn’t insist we use condoms. Sorry I didn’t know you for more than one night. Sorry that I have lived three decades on earth and still can’t behave like an adult.

POV Man:

I feel like a trapped dog. What was I thinking?? How is It I can run legal cases with finesse but can’t think straight when it comes to a hot woman?!

She asked to meet, so here we are, her puppy eyes haunted looking. (Was this an early sign of pregnancy?) She plays with the tin band I gave her as a quasi-promise ring.

When she slides the ring off and across the table at me, I feel like the cage to my kennel is lifting. I’m getting out of here! I’m getting another chance!!!

“I’m sorry,” I say. Guilt and relief flood through my veins in equal measure.

“Me, too” she says.

Only she doesn’t seem sorry. Her eyes look shiny with a relief that, just moments before, mirrored mine. And yet, the idea of the life inside of her not happening makes the invisible hairs on the back of my neck stand up in cold fear. 

—–

There you have it, three different perspectives on one moment in time. And they are all accurate! 

My dear friend, Steve Bernstein (author of STORIES FROM THE STOOP) recently reminded me of the storytelling layers or perspectives in fiction as well as life. Whether we are crafting a tale on the page or forming one in our real lives, we need to be cognizant of the story we and others are potentially perceiving.

So, the next time you find yourself angry or emotional about something someone did, consider the potential alternate narrative they might be telling. They might be the woman, man, or observer in the “restaurant” of your life story. When we give the gift of an alternate perspective for ourselves as well as others, we are more likely to find compassion and a greater sense of inner peace.

Who’s in the Driver’s Seat?

If we aren’t mindful, we run the risk of allowing others to determine our worthiness.

            I was a graduate student, eager to take a creative writing class. An optional prerequisite was to share our fiction work with the professor. Oh boy—did I have something I wanted to share: the rough draft of a fiction manuscript I’d worked on that summer. My heart was soaring with hope, eagerly anticipating the moment I stepped into Professor Edmund’s office to hear the long-awaited feedback regarding my work.

            Unfortunately, the feedback was nothing short of heart breaking:

            “You can’t take the class. Your writing is terrible.”

            Despite the taste of bile in my throat aching with unshed tears, I dared ask “What do I need to work on? Please tell me and I’ll do it.”

            He shook his head, studying the manuscript the way one might a moldy slice of cheese. “I wouldn’t know where to begin. You need a high school freshman English class.”

            While the room was silent, psychically something screamed and broke inside of me. 

            It would be years before I picked up a pen to create a story.

            Years later, here’s what I know: 

  1. Regardless of whether or not I possessed “the gift” of creative writing, Professor Edmund’s cruelty was uncalled for and reflects his failure as an educator.
  2. While Professor Edmund’s lacerating words stung, the decision to not pick up a pen for several years was all mine.

Anyone who is dwelling on planet Earth knows how powerful words can be—especially when they’re spoken by someone in a place of authority or someone we love and respect. If we aren’t careful, if we don’t remain present, it’s easy to allow words of criticism to form our perception of ourselves—and by extension—our reality. If we aren’t paying attention, we can allow another’s opinion of us to alter the course of our own future. If we aren’t mindful, we can change the trajectory of our very lives by digesting another’s belief as our own.

We are all familiar with the term Back Seat Driver—the habit some people have of telling the driver when to stop, where to look, when to speed up—essentially, how to drive a car. The Back Seat Driver typically induces annoyance in the driver. We grow resentful that the BSD is telling us how to drive a vehicle that we are in possession of steering—not them!

Yet when it comes to our personal lives and the choices we make (i.e. marriage, career, etc.), the potential for a Back Seat Driver still exists. We give away our power to an aunt or a colleague, a sister or husband, a boss or a doctor, dismissing our own intuition. 

Professor Edmund was a man in his late 60’s when I was a grad student in my 20’s. Perhaps he wasn’t happy with his own life and needed to share this unhappiness with a naïve twenty-something college grad student. Perhaps he was threatened by the potential of my prose. Regardless of the reason behind his vicious tongue, he most likely moved on and never gave that girl a second thought. I allowed his words to determine my career, to determine my confidence, to determine my worth as a writer. I had, willingly, turned my steering wheel over to an angry man who didn’t even know me or where I was heading.

Consider the people in your life who offer heavy-handed opinions of you and your choices. There’s a fine line between receiving advice and altering your life to meet others’ expectations and perceptions. Ultimately, YOU are the one in the driver seat of your life. YOU determine your own course.