Why it's okay to be an indecipherable mess

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We can't become new without the unnerving dissolution of old things and ways.

"If I have the stuff inside me to make cocoons—maybe the stuff of butterflies is there too."

Trina Paulus, Hope for the Flowers

James Jordan, Flickr Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1ZqDixK

 

Some people enjoy a butterfly life.

Colorful and carefree, they flit unpredictably about the world eliciting “oohs” and “ahhs.”

What a sweet life! Flying from one beautiful place to the next, sampling exotic foods, always looking good and turning heads.

When butterfly people land in your life (or on your Facebook or Instagram or blog feed), they are something to behold. But you have to look quickly. Blink and these winged flowers are gone, off to the next thing.

Other people are like caterpillars. Grounded rather than gorgeous, you won’t find them trending on Twitter or winning gold medals. No, while the butterfly people are enjoying the view way up where the flowers brush against the sky, the caterpillar folks are down below, engaged in a lot of tenacious clinging and relentless climbing.

At first glance caterpillars never “wow” you. Only when you pay close attention do you realize how interesting they are. How do they do it? How do they keep all the wiggly parts of their lives together, inching toward the goal?

There’s a third group of people. They neither soar on the wind nor scuffle about the earth.

They’re hard to spot. This is because Life has decreed they enter a kind of “time-out with the lights off” in order to undergo big change. During this strange season, their sole job description is not to be pretty or to be busy. It is to be come.

Every fourth-grader knows about metamorphosis. A caterpillar hangs from a branch and spins a cocoon around itself. What happens next, inside that temporary place, is nothing short of miraculous.

It’s the marriage of chemistry and mystery. Bidding farewell to its former existence, the cooped-up caterpillar releases enzymes that actually cause it to dissolve into a kind of chunky “worm soup.”

The chunks are called “imaginal discs.” These clusters of cells are the embryonic parts of the creature’s glorious future. (They’ve been there all along, we just couldn’t see them.) It’s these elements that will come together to produce a butterfly.

What powers this remarkable transformation? The protein-rich “goo” that, quite literally, was the creature’s life as a caterpillar. In other words, the past is the fuel for the future.

As metaphors go, an ugly caterpillar morphing into a beautiful butterfly is hard to beat. (Which explains why writers and motivational speakers use it more often than Geico airs insurance commercials.) But few focus on that mysterious in-between time. And what a shame that is, because it’s in the transition that all the magic happens.

Think about some of the big transitions we have to undergo in life:

  • From toddler to little kid — “You want me to use a toilet? What’s wrong with these handy things called diapers?! ...Go to school? But I love my life the way it is!”
  • Adolescence — You’re no longer a little kid, but you’re also a long way from being an adult—even if you’re through puberty and shaving by age 12. (Personal testimony: No group—as a whole—feels more like a “chunky soup of goo” than acne-plagued, hormone-filled junior high & high school students.)
  • From college to the workplace — Who knew... that monster.com would replace YouTube as your new favorite website? ... that a 15 hour class load is like a beach vacation compared to a full-time work schedule? ... that so much “life” happens before noon?
  • From one career to another — More and more people are switching careers late in life, and often not by their own choice. They’re watching old jobs dissolve. They’re having to reinvent themselves and acquire new skills that can help them compete in the new economy.
As far as what the experience of metamorphosis “feels” like for an ex-caterpillar/butterfly-in-the-making, scientists can’t say.

But we know how our own life transitions feel. It is unsettling to find yourself in the dark. And some transitions seem like a colossal waste of time: How long is this going to take...because I have a LOT to do! Experiencing the dissolution of your old life is unnerving—and painful. You don’t know who or what you are anymore. If you feel like a mess, it’s because you are one. And that’s okay. Becoming is always messy business.

The message here to beautiful butterfly people and to dutiful caterpillar people is, “Carry on. You’re doing great.”

The message today to amorphous “cocoon people” is, “Hang in there (heh, heh)...you’re doing great too.” Life’s in-between times aren’t fun, but they are the necessary crucibles that make us into the people we were created to be.

Today, if you feel like you’re disintegrating and that the life you once knew is disappearing forever, resist the urge to resist the process. Submit. In fact, embrace it.

How else will you get your wings?

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