This spring, my friend Terri grew Monarch butterflies. Like most of us, she’s concerned that it’s our human footprint mucking up the planet and not, contrary to what some believe, God or Zeus or Mothra exacting their revenge on us for sport. In the past few decades, the Monarch population has suffered an alarming and steep decline from 1 billion in the mid-1990s to only 35 million in 2014. It doesn’t take a math genius like Stephen Hawking to tell you that this is not good with a side of very bad. Or to put it another way: there’s a profound disturbance in the Force, Luke.
The world depends on harmony, not balance. Harmony is all the disparate elements co-mingling and working together in their own funky ways to create some kind of whole. Harmony is peanut butter and chocolate smashed together to make something delicious. There was a time when no one thought those two ingredients could be a thing, how wrong they were. Everything has purpose, everything has belonging and a role to fulfill in an architecture that is more sophisticated than we can ever dream or know. That incredibly grating co-worker who shamelessly flirts with the guy that restocks the vending machine is probably the reason it gets filled with Oreo snack packs instead of healthy, boring Kashi dirt bars. Think about it.
Terri decided to shelve her worry and take action. She ordered Monarch eggs online and slipped into her new role as surrogate mama. She posted photos and videos of the green stalks of milkweed dotted with tiny, white specks of eggs slowly turning into the soupy, chrysalis sack cradling the brown and orange body of the butterfly. It seemed impossible that this creature could fit in such a compact space, but then again, we incubate 7 and 8 pounds of human in a room of similar dimensions. Nature’s badassery is infinite.
I had never watched a caterpillar become a butterfly practically in real time. The transformation was astounding, which is similar to saying February is chilly, but truth is truth. It occurred to me that we not only take this kind of remarkable evolution for granted, but we’ve grown used to seeing it played out with much of the grit and sweat and unflattering moments sanitized. Makeover reality shows sell us the lie that all we need is a bit of paint with a name like Iowa Thunderstorm and some strategically placed throw pillows and voila!: instant transformation, which is code for happily ever after.
The reality is much messier and twisted and painful. Growth is not benign. It kind of sucks and often feels very unfair, this business of perpetual sacrifice, of relentless shedding of skins and cells and habits and all the elements that made us feel safe, protected, and known. My good friend Maria describes it like this: “We struggle and wrestle inside the cocoon because it’s hard and painful, but all the while we’re building the muscles we need to survive and thrive. You bust out of that cocoon before you’re really ready and you’re not going to make it.” When it comes to ugly truths, Nature lowers the boom without so much as smudging her lipstick.
I want to avoid struggle as much as possible because there is nothing glamorous, easy, or remotely appealing about it, but I think it’s worth calling ourselves to be witnesses and participants in it. We perform a disservice airbrushing the pain and trauma of becoming because it’s scary and uncomfortable. The recent events in Charleston, SC are poignant reminders that the reckoning of growth is profoundly disturbing, but so is the acceptance of permanent stasis. We should honor the process of becoming as a sacred ritual. It’s a period of communion with something Divine that is equal parts beautiful and devastating.
You learn all kinds of fantastic ten-dollar words in graduate school. You stuff them in your pockets and tuck them into the back of drawers so you can pull them out and use them as much as humanly possible. This is part of the intellectual swagger any grad develops until, like charm or the shifting moon, it eventually wears thin. “Liminal” was one such word I learned and loved to sprinkle in papers. It means on a threshold, it signifies an ambiguous area in the midst of transition where you’re neither one thing nor another; you’re a stranger to yourself in a strange land. You’re free. No wonder that scares the shit out of us and we want to cut to commercial. There is nothing more terrifying than possibility.
Terri released each butterfly into her garden full of flowers friendly and inviting to these critters. I look at her photos of these tiny, yet mighty insects perched happily on the blooms and exhale thinking the hard part is over, the storm clouds are on the run, and there’s only the singular journey now, right?