If you told a caterpillar, trapped in its chrysalis, that one day, it would be a butterfly, I wonder if it would believe you (assuming caterpillars have the capacity for cognitive reasoning, that is). I suspect not. Because when you’re in the throttle of transformation, it’s hard to see beyond the state you’re in, hard to imagine an end, and even harder to imagine that the end will be a good one. Perhaps when you first enter that transitional phase, you have a vague idea of what you will become when you finish, but those hopes are soon forgotten as you begin to undergo the change and discover just how painful becoming a butterfly can be.
I’ve long possessed an inexplicable love for butterflies–note, butterflies, and not caterpillars, because that’s how our society is wired, isn’t it? To admire the finished product. This is part of why it’s so difficult to get across to non-writers that a book does not simply go from fingertips to laptop to the shelves of Barnes & Noble. There are about 18,000 other steps in that process, and most of them involve a lot of sweat, blood, and time. But that’s a topic for another post.
Back to my love of butterflies–it’s bordering on ridiculous. Come into my room, look at what I own, and you’ll find them everywhere, often in subtle, hidden places (because I don’t want to go all Silence of the Lambs on people). Sometimes, they’re vividly colored, and other times, they’re only sketches and silhouettes. Don’t ask me how this started, or why I’m so drawn to them. I just am. But today, musing on the idea of transformation, I like to think it has something to do with this…
The beginning of a transformation is fraught with challenges, to be sure. Depending on how intense those challenges are, you may soon forget why you even started the change in the first place. Or if that change was something that begun against your will, you may start to question the intents of whoever or whatever the impetus was, why it decided to pick on you, of all beings, and why it won’t just leave you alone. The beginning is hard, but I believe the most agonizing phase of transformation comes near the end–in that interval when the caterpillar is already a butterfly but still trapped in its chrysalis, when it has begun wrestling to get free. Swelling at the seams of your old self, it’s almost impossible to see the new self you’ve become, and being unable to see that new self can make you forget why you’re fighting to get rid of the old one, make you want to give up, and make you doubt that you’ve changed in any way at all. That struggle to once and for all be rid of the old self is like living through the last throes of a lengthy illness, that insomnia-laden night of sweat and heat and restless dreams, the final hours right before the fever breaks. It can feel like a kind of death, and in a way, it is.
When I was a child, I was told that, if you see a butterfly fighting to emerge from its chrysalis, you should never help it–because that struggle is what makes the butterfly’s wings strong enough for flight, and without that struggle, it will not have the strength it needs to live out the rest of its life. Not being the least bit science-inclined, I’m not sure if that’s true, but I like to believe it is. It seems like the perfect metaphor for humans in the midst of transformations–the hardest, darkest phases of our lives are more often than not the ones that grow us in the most intense and essential ways, the ones that make us who and what we’re meant to become. And enduring even when we don’t know where we’re going, even when the pain is almost more than we can stand–this may be more important than we can even begin to imagine. Fighting through the struggle matters, not just for the immediate future, but for the rest of our days, even on into eternity.
Multiple clichés speak to this concept: “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” “No pressure, no diamonds,” “There is no testimony without the test.” And while these are all true, I think that they, like most clichés, belittle the process of enduring, of what it really takes and really means to live through something excruciatingly painful. Bouts of trial and uncertainty have a way of stripping us of all the fanciful notions we may have of ourselves. When bad times come, any ideas we might’ve once clung to of how strong, brave, self-sufficient, and capable we are go right out the window, and we learn facts about our natures that we’d rather not know. The truth, more often than not, isn’t pretty. But in order to grow, we have to be made almost cruelly aware not just of what we are, but also of what we are not. Until we know where and in how many ways we fall short, we will never know in what ways we need to change. And until we hit rock bottom, we will never be able to stand back up, resume the climb, and take active steps to a new and brighter surface.
In the foreword to Palmer Chinchen’s God Can’t Sleep, Matt Hammitt says, “Tension is the place where the worst of life and the best of true hope meet to unveil our eyes to God’s artistic work of redemption.” There are lessons that can only be learned in the dark, and that is another frightening truth. A caterpillar can only become a butterfly by spending weeks crammed in a chrysalis, and it can only acquire what it needs to be a butterfly by using every ounce of its strength to literally break into that new existence. As a human, going through that type of process is a form of redemption, not only because it changes us and makes us new creations, but also because it makes us sharply aware of how much we need God to help us endure the struggle. Ernest Gordon said, “Faith thrives when there is no hope but God.” It may be that the cramped, confusing, and terrifying places are exactly where we need to be in order to learn in Whom we must place all of our hope.
Hammitt goes on to say, “What a mighty and creatively loving God we serve. He allows us to know great pain, so that we can know the greater pleasure of trading it in for purpose.” Purpose–this is what all of us crave, whether we know it or not, and even if we do know it, whether we admit it or not. “Why” is one of the most common questions asked by someone in the midst of painful circumstances, and it is a legitimate one–why is this happening to me? Human beings hunger for answers. We need there to be a reason for the suffering we see, for the suffering we feel. I ask these questions all the time, and I may be opening up a Pandora’s box of gray areas and rebuttal with this–but I’m going to go out a limb and say, yes, there is always a reason. We may not always be able to see it, nor may we always like it, nor may it always reconcile with the way we understand things, the neat little notions we’ve concocted to tie up our world in pink ribbon and proclaim, “Everything’s going to be okay.” It will be okay, but maybe not for a long while. And when it is okay, again, it may not always be the way we would define “okay.”
But here’s the other thing–we have to learn to accept this. Because chances are, this new “okay” is far more awesome than any “okay” we could conceive of on our own. We also have to accept that we were not made to always understand, and in fact, it’s the things we don’t fully understand that can be the most beautiful. Like love. Why do we love who and what we do? You can point to your best friend and say, “I love her because she’s this and that,” or point to your favorite place of respite and say, “I love it because it makes me feel this and that way,” but if you dig down and get at the genuine emotions behind that love, those are not feelings you can put into words. They exist somewhere beyond our abilities of explanation. I think that’s why some of us are drawn to create art, why so many others are drawn to observe it, to listen to it, and to be near it: every work of art, no matter the medium, endeavors to express the inexpressible, to bring us closer to knowing what it means to be human, even if that knowledge continues to defy concrete explanation.
So where am I going with this? Here: in Firstlight, Sue Monk Kidd says, “If we look closely at the workings of creation, we find that God nearly always works through process…The universe is designed to move stage by stage, from incompletion to completion. Now why should we suppose that God has designed the heart any differently than the rest of creation? It, too, has its stages.” You, beautiful human being, were created to be a creature-in-process. One of progress, too, but also one of process. And some of those processes are going to be painful, perhaps more painful than you ever imagined, and perhaps more painful than you believe you can endure. But those are also the most vital processes you will ever undergo.
I am someone who has recently undergone an arduous transformation, who has spent the past few weeks feeling like a fish coughed up from the bowels of the ocean and onto the rocky shore, gasping for every wheezing breath (sorry to mix metaphors, but that’s the way it goes). And while I won’t say that I’m now a gorgeous and vibrant butterfly, flapping around happily in a world of sunshine and roses, I do feel poised on the branch, testing my wings, shaking off those last drops of sweat and struggle. And because I feel like that, and know what I went through to get here, I have to say this: if you are gasping for air, keep breathing. Press on. If you’re in the dark, it’s okay to admit that the dark is scary. The dark is scary. It’s terrifying. Keep going.
Because if you give up, if you quit and sit down and stay where you are–or worse, go back to where you started–you will never know what you could’ve become, what you are already in the process of becoming. Because we can’t know everything, we can’t put aside the struggle. We can’t stop fighting. And I believe this with every fiber of my bruised and frail being–that fight is what will make you who need to become, who this world needs you to become. Every minute of despair, every sleepless night, every moment of doubt, and every, every, every tear–that struggle is what’s pumping strength into your wings.