A few years ago my best friend gave me a copy of Hope for the Flowers. It was a Valentine’s gift during what I had termed “The Year of the Butterfly.” The book is the story of two caterpillars and their journey. Published in 1972, it is part hippie call to kindness and love, part Christian resurrection story, part anti-corporate allegory, and part existential statement on finding life’s meaning. In it, the central characters discover that to live as the butterflies they are meant to be, they must shed their caterpillar selves. If they are to learn to fly with the beautiful wings that are their essential nature, they must stop climbing the caterpillar pillar—corporate ladder, life’s treadmill, rat race—and build a chrysalis in which they can grow into butterflies.
I did not read the book for several years. It is bright yellow with a big butterfly on the front. The font is childish and the title does not use capital letters. Plus, it was written the year after I was born, so it is old. I skimmed over my friend’s message to me on the inside cover: “To my best friend on Valentine’s Day. May this year bring as much joy as discovery—as much lessons as love—and be marked in time as the year you learned what it is to become a butterfly!” She ended her thoughts by quoting the book: “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.” I simply thanked my friend and put the book on my shelf. I am not sure of the source of my resistance. Even in the Year of the Butterfly, shedding my caterpillar self did not interest me. We come to things when we are ready, and I was not ready.
Motivated by a renewed interest in springtime after a severe case of cabin fever during a snowstorm, I picked the book up and read it. It is a quick read. I thought about the drone-quality of the caterpillars in the story and the over-the-top majesty of butterflies. I thought about my consistent unhappiness living life in the pillar. I fear that I ask too many questions. I can’t take direction from people I don’t respect. Most importantly, I have to be accomplishing meaningful work. Words like responsibility, success, and logic floated around in my head. I started thinking about what happens inside a chrysalis.How are wings are formed? How a new being emerges from the essence of an earlier stage of life? Do caterpillars experience pain while they are in the chrysalis? My head spun. What exactly is a chrysalis, that essential element of a caterpillar’s journey?
Scientifically speaking, the chrysalis is a distinct developmental stage in which the pupa of a caterpillar develops into an adult butterfly. The childhood structures of the larval caterpillar are broken down and adult features emerge. Butterflies leave the chrysalis as adults, and are immediately confronted with the challenge of using their newly-formed wings. Color and spectacle in place, their wings must be hardened through a process of rigorous flapping so they can take flight. There are no hard and fast rules as to how long a butterfly stays inside its chrysalis. There is no prescribed method by which a butterfly frees itself. However, it is generally accepted by butterfly scholars that breaking free from the chrysalis occurs as a result of a hormonal response within the butterfly. A complete metamorphosis occurs inside a chrysalis.
A profound leap of faith is involved in undergoing a metamorphosis. The heart of metamorphosis is fundamental change, when firmament shifts and the world becomes something else. My simultaneous attraction to and aversion to change frames both its sexiness and its stench. I have learned that when I question the status quo and start to tackle questions of self, faith, mortality, and morality, I open myself up to conflict, both internal and external. I have learned that ambiguity undermines certainty. Standing at the cliff of change, it is often easier to step away from the edge and eat the sandwich packed in my backpack.
We can all be butterflies, with individual stories of courage, love, loss, and faith. What happens in life before we are butterflies is important. The view from inside the chrysalis, where the questions of life are chewed and digested, where we learn how to use words and feel emotion, must be shared, as we define our butterfly selves. Indeed, butterflies cannot emerge without first entering the chrysalis. The journey to the profound moment when the wings break forth is a part of the story.
A chrysalis is the embodiment of potential. Life is full of all that can be at that point. There is no hesitation, fear, regret, anxiety, doubt, or sadness. No banged-knee cynicism, only spring and a fight for life. A butterfly is born, and there is only forward and up. Each flap of the wings defies the temporal nature of life itself and professes hope.
Becoming a butterfly is not a destination. There is no discreet endpoint at which we arrive and breathe a sigh of relief. Rather, becoming a butterfly is a gradual evolution made in fits and starts. The question “Is this all there is?” does not have to be asked. We become butterflies when we do not greet the morning with dread. When we rise from a fall. When we examine the consequences of our actions. When we do not compromise our health by habit. When we dance, or read, or cook, or hug our children, or nap if we want to. When we honor commitments, maintain our ethics, and do not separate spirit from routine. Becoming a butterfly is the fluid conversation between present and future, health and sickness, reality and possibility, comfort and courage.
One of my favorite parts of Hope for the Flowers is a conversation between Yellow, the female caterpillar, and an older male caterpillar engaged in the process of building a chrysalis. Yellow approaches the older caterpillar. Thinking he might be in pain, she asks if he needs help. He says no and proceeds to explain that this is a necessary step in becoming the butterfly he is meant to become. He asserts that all caterpillars can become butterflies and that flowers live because of butterflies. Their conversation builds to a moment in which the older caterpillar proclaims, “Once you are a butterfly you can really love—the kind of love that makes new life.”
This exchange leaves Yellow prepared to build her own chrysalis and step into the unknown, toward the deeper life promised by the older caterpillar. In taking this step, she moves away from the caterpillar pillar and leaves behind a caterpillar she has grown to love who has chosen the status quo. She embraces the idea that a butterfly dwells within her despite the fact she has never seen it. She has embraced the unknown for the promise of beauty and flight. There is uncertainty at both the top of the pillar and in the chrysalis, and she chooses the promise of the chrysalis over the drudgery of the pillar climb.
I need to thank my best friend for the gift of Hope for the Flowers. In giving me the book, she gave me permission to think about life a bit differently, embrace my essential self, and build a chrysalis in which to become the butterfly I am meant to be.