Being a beginner is a practice in vulnerability and courage. Children do it all the time. They try something new. Fall down and get back up again. A child does not expect to be good on the first try. It is no different for adults. Why are our expectations of beginning so different? Implicit in the meaning of beginning is this: new, open, unexplored and unpracticed. Movement and transformation are at the heart of beginning. The caterpillar in the chrysalis literally deconstructs into biological goo before reconfiguring into a butterfly. This transformation requires decomposition and subsequent reconstruction. This is why beginning feels so damn hard.
I absolutely relate to the goo. I’m well practiced at being a caterpillar crawling across branches, eating multiples of my weight in leaves, and building a warm place to rest. I’m pretty sure I’ve spent most of my adult life perambulating between those phases. The process of beginning too daunting, the prospect of practice and vulnerability too exhausting that, like me, most adults stay in one of a couple of phases: satisfied sitting on tree branches, seeking refuge in cocoons, and/or as metaphorical goo.
I wish I could say I embrace and relish being a beginner. Beginning scares me to my bones. Beginning exposes every vulnerability I’ve been trying to hide from since adolescence. Beginning makes me uncomfortable in the deepest reaches of my soul. Beginning forces me to check my expectations, insecurities, and move. That is the dichotomy: Beginning feels counter to being an adult yet it is the engine that adult life is built upon.
Last year I separated and divorced from my husband of 18 years. I was dropped into a world of beginning. I was drowning in beginning. Thrust down and pushed under into the deep and turbulent sea of beginning. For 18 years I had supported my ex-husband in his work and dreams as I parented our four children. Now here I am, an adult beginner. I am a beginner at dreams and a beginner at fighting for those dreams. I have 10,000 plus hours of logged experience in life lived over and over again. I have raised children, advocated for special needs, navigated school districts, facilitated medical care, delegated human resources, mediated conflict, directed complex logistics, taught literacy, conducted therapy, created vision, oversaw mission, and managed projects. I have shoveled shit, slayed dragons, buried the dead, and saved souls.
However, in my new life, I am a beginner from my head to my toes. I found myself caterpillaring, cocooning, and gooing in a kind of headlong self-doubting reeling kind of way. I was begrudging and blaming and pissing all over my beginningness. I wanted to shed my caterpillar skin, kick the cocoon, shat the goo, and simply rest on a branch as a beautiful butterfly. Herein lies the problem, as adults, we do not acknowledge the value of beginning and all of the stages in between. They can be painful, awkward, and uncertain. Hence the avoidance. Rather than face uncertainty and discomfort, humans, as a species, rush to the final transformation-the glory and the wings.
This is what we learn from the lowly caterpillar: As a caterpillar, massive and rapid growth occurs. The caterpillar is a phase of learning and practice. The cocoon prepares the butterfly in embryo for what lies ahead. The cocoon is for healing, reflection, and planning. Goo, or mostly goo (as new scientific research reports), reconstitutes for transformation. In this final phase, goo, disparate pieces and experience come together to create meaning and action: it is synthesis. Each phase is essential for full flight. Skipping one would negate the metamorphosis. One must always be a caterpillar before a butterfly.
I absolutely needed to begin again after my long years married. I needed to caterpillar (learn/practice), cocoon (heal/reflect), and goo (apply/synthesize). These are prerequisite to flight. However, as humans, we want to skip the middle and head quickly to the end. We want to stretch our gorgeous wings, heroically break through the chrysalis that binds and protects, and explode into flight. That is not how it works in nature nor how it works with those most sophisticated of biped, upright mammals, you and me. We also begin at the beginning and go from there. It is wonderful to be an adult beginner. We should all give it a try. Remember, a caterpillar is simply and profoundly a beginning butterfly.