It’s Spring! Time for Butterflies!

A Metaphor About Change, Transition, Courage, and New Life

Springtime is about embracing new life, renewal, transformation, new growth. It’s the perfect opportunity to reflect on what’s happening inside us and what wants to emerge in powerful new ways.

courtesy of Shutterstock.com/Gradientik

courtesy of Shutterstock.com/Gradientik

The butterfly’s metamorphosis process is quite a profound metaphor for personal transformation and development.  I wrote about this process several years ago and want to again comment on one of the transition stages that is particularly challenging for many of us.  I hear from people I work with all the time about this issue.  And having gone through a major transition in my own life, I can relate to the challenging dynamics of this stage quite well.

One of the staggering things that takes place in stage three of the caterpillar’s metamorphosis is that once a caterpillar goes into its cocoon, it literally liquifies—completely changing itself all the way to the molecular level before it can recreate itself into a butterfly.  It basically loses everything, not just shedding its outer layer but a profound internal transformation–a complete disintegration of the old in order to take on the new original design for its ultimate purpose, a butterfly.

Your Big Temptation

Dr. Astrid Sheil makes this observation:

Here in square one, we have a tendency to want to become bigger caterpillars. In other words, we try to hold onto the status quo as  long as possible. Maybe if we just work 80 hours a week instead of 75, we won’t get fired. Maybe if we subsume our needs, we can keep a failing marriage from coming apart at the seams. But of course, we are just fooling ourselves. When it is time to begin the transformation process, there is no capitulation or compromise that can divert the process. However, transformation can be delayed if we are unwilling to accept ourselves the way we are. The key to beginning the process is to ‘totally’ accept ourselves and the reality of our situation. We must surrender to the truth—the old way doesn’t work anymore, we can’t go back, and the future is unclear and unknown.”

I can relate to that temptation to simply want to become a bigger, more improved caterpillar.  The radical metamorphosis into the butterfly, which involves the complete disintegration of our selves, is too painful, too risky, to uncertain of the ultimate outcome.  Status quo is so much safer, or so we try to deceive ourselves into believing.

But the reality is, if the caterpillar remained inside the cocoon without its meltdown (its internal transformation), it would never end up fulfilling its ultimate destiny–flying and soaring as an adult butterfly.

My Own Struggle

My personal struggle of trying to figure out who I was as a professional outside the religious organization I had spent 25 years serving within was painful and challenging.  I  had dreams regularly of being back leading spiritual communities where I had been before.  I would wake up and be tempted to think, “That must be a message to me that I need to go back somehow.  I need to simply be a bigger caterpillar.  Stay inside the cocoon where I was so safe all my life.”  I would wake up from those dreams with feelings of fear, forboding, insecurity, uncertainty, a sense of doom.  In that paradigm, growth and transformation were simply within the cocoon rather than from cocoon to the outside world.  The emerging was too scary a thought.  But ironically and counter-intuitively, that paradigm was not in harmony with my ultimate purpose.

Dr. Sheil describes it this way:

We have all experienced these dreaded feelings. Limbo is scary. Not knowing is exhausting. Loss of identity can lead to depression. Why would anyone choose to go through the process of transformation? According to Beck, we have no choice. This is a cyclical process and we all go through it at different times and for different reasons. But like the caterpillar, when we get through the four stages of (1) crash and burn, (2) expansive imagining, (3) this is harder than I thought, and (4) the promise land—we are forever changed and expanded.”

Being Born Anew

I’m reminded of how Jesus referred to the radical nature of this transformation experience.  Talking to a religious leader who came in the darkness of night to interview him, Jesus said to this man who of all people would have been considered to be living the “butterfly” life (surely he had already “emerged” to occupy the top of the religious-social totem pole, the pinnacle of the significance pyramid):

Unless you are born again, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  (John 3:3)

Now that’s a shocking message to a person who thought he’d already arrived.  But in essence, Jesus was informing him that he was simply still a caterpillar who was trying to be a bigger, more fancy caterpillar, who thought being a caterpillar was enough, and that of all the caterpillars, he certainly was the biggest and best.

Being A Caterpillar Isn’t the Endgame

But being a caterpillar isn’t the endgame.  Because the caterpillar is suppose to become a butterfly.  But if it wants to become a butterfly, it has to allow itself a radical, complete transformation inside its cocoon.  It has to let go completely of itself, allow whatever needs to disintegrate to disintegrate, in order to finally re-form and emerge as the intended butterfly.

You must be reborn, Jesus said.  You have to allow yourself to let go and become a new person–be re-formed inside the spiritual womb in order to be reborn into the person you’ve been designed all along to become.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with being a caterpillar.  After all, that’s one of the important stages of the metamorphosis process.  But we can’t stay caterpillars because it’s not in alignment with our ultimate destiny.  And the caterpillar that stays inside the cocoon ultimately dies, turning into a shriveled up, petrified skeleton.

To Enjoy Your Most Expansive Life, You Must Allow Yourself To …

We have to allow ourselves to go through the painful ordeal and struggle of letting go of whatever it is that might keep us from transitioning adequately to the next stage:

  • Often times these are limiting beliefs that if held onto disempower us from forward movement.
  • Some times they are relationships that are dragging us down or disempowering us spiritually or personally or emotionally and unless those relationships themselves are transformed or ultimately let go of, they continue holding us like heavy weights from running the race.
  • Most of the time, they are self-identities that are false or limiting or not accurate–we have become accustomed to connecting our sense of self with our productivity, or our accomplishments, or our connection to an organization, or our reputation with others, or our status in society–so that when those external circumstances change, we lose our sense of self and get side-lined and side-tracked and disillusioned.

Jesus said to that religious leader, if you want to enjoy your most expansive, maximized life you’ve been designed for, you have to go through a radical transformation process that involves aligning your life with your true identity–a rediscovery of your true identity as a fully loved and accepted human being who has inherent value, not based on your associations or accomplishments or reputations, but based upon who you truly are as that fully loved and lovable person.

Only then will you emerge from the cocoon, not as a bigger caterpillar, but as a beautiful, unique butterfly ready to lift off and soar into the skies of your ultimate purpose and destiny.

So maybe one of the most significant steps of being a caterpillar inside the cocoon is to learn how to embrace ourselves with love and compassion and acceptance for who we really are!

Your Choice

Our choice in life is to liquify or petrify.  Pretty starkly stated.  But clear.  It’s okay to feel lost in the cocoon stage, to feel disoriented, to lose a sense of direction and purpose, to feel afraid and uncertain.  I certainly have in my times of radical transition and change.

But the good news is, that’s all in preparation for the next stage.  As long as we don’t let ourselves remain in status quo inside the cocoon–as long as we end up using that time to rethink, replan, reassess, refocus, restore, and embrace ourselves in the process–we’ll be ready to emerge, not as bigger or different caterpillars, but as magnificent flying butterflies.

I’m all for that!

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Looking for a Speaker or Coach?

If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for a keynote speaker or workshop teacher for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it. And interested in coaching for how to be an effective culture architect in your groups? Feel free to email me at greg@gregorypnelson.com or look at the Speaking or Coaching pages of this site.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “It’s Spring! Time for Butterflies!

  1. Greg, this is wonderful, uplifting wisdom! You hit the nail on the head. I am in the process of reorienting my life from 33 years in big law to the creative life of a writer. Everything is upside down. How I go through the day, what I do, the empty spaces I now find I must have for ideas and creativity (instead of filling every instant with quantifiable work) and on and on. You’ve helped me put it into perspective and realize that I am in a state of liquifaction. A perfect metaphor. Now I get it. Letting go and having faith in the journey is the key, not “mastering” the fear and uncertainty. Thank you so much!

    • Thanks, Jennifer! I admire your story of courage and persistence and vision. I’m excited about what’s ahead for you! Keep up the bold work.

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