In which I try to turn a midlife crisis into an opportunity—and try to make sense of my need to disappear sometimes.
“A part of us has to die to transform; and a part of us dies if we don’t. Which part will prevail: what has been, or what may be?”
—Jett Psaris, PhD
Every now and again I disappear for a while. This is very much health related, but I like to treat these convalescent retreats like cocoons.
I become quiet and inwardly focused in order to both heal and grow into the next phase of my life. This can both look and feel a bit like death, and it is. What has come before is gone, and I must let it die in order to make room for whatever new life form wants to emerge.
Caterpillar into butterfly, cliché yes, I know. But there is a version of this image that you may not have heard before. Maybe you have heard it, and I’m new to the party. I only heard it a few months ago.
The butterfly story
“Once a little boy was playing outdoors and found a caterpillar. He carefully picked it up and took it home to show his mother. He asked his mother if he could keep it, and she said he could if he would take good care of it.
The little boy got a large jar from his mother and put plants to eat, and a stick to climb on, in the jar. Every day he watched the caterpillar and brought it new plants to eat.
One day the caterpillar climbed up the stick and started acting strangely. The boy worriedly called his mother who came and understood that the caterpillar was creating a cocoon. The mother explained to the boy how the caterpillar was going to go through a metamorphosis and become a butterfly.
The little boy was thrilled to hear about the changes his caterpillar would go through. He watched every day, waiting for the butterfly to emerge. One day it happened, a small hole appeared in the cocoon and the butterfly started to struggle to come out.
At first the boy was excited, but soon he became concerned. The butterfly was struggling so hard to get out, but it looked like it couldn’t break free. It looked desperate. It looked like it was making no progress.
The boy was so concerned he decided to help. He ran to get scissors…. He snipped the cocoon to make the hole bigger and the butterfly quickly emerged.
As the butterfly came out the boy was surprised. It had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. He continued to watch the butterfly expecting that, at any moment, the wings would dry out, enlarge and expand to support the swollen body. He knew that in time the body would shrink and the butterfly’s wings would expand.
But neither happened.
The butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings.
It never was able to fly…
As the boy tried to figure out what had gone wrong his mother took him to talk to a scientist from a local college. He learned that the butterfly was supposed to struggle. In fact, the butterfly’s struggle to push its way through the tiny opening of the cocoon pushes the fluid out of its body and into its wings. Without the struggle, the butterfly would never, ever fly. The boy’s good intentions hurt the butterfly.’
To help or not to help
I do not subscribe to the idea that what doesn’t kill you (only) makes you stronger. It’s actually not scientifically true. While it is true that struggling like the transforming butterfly can lead to growth and greater strength, it is not true that struggling through overwhelming hardship makes you stronger. Quite the opposite, it makes you weaker. The struggle needs to be manageable.
If you look at writing about struggling butterflies, you can find that actually, there are cases in which a butterfly does need assistance to break out of the cocoon. As with many things, the line between too much help and not enough can be a fine one.
I write about this because many people take the meaning of examples like this a bit too far. In our western individualistic society we tend to believe, and be told, that we must take care of ourselves. The consequences of our self-care (or lack thereof) are our own doing, and so are the benefits. Unfortunately, this is only partly true. In our economically driven world, we are expected to devote all our healthy energy first to our work. The rest takes the proverbial back seat: family, friendships, personal fulfillment and spirituality (not necessarily the same as religion), and very much so our health. In our culture, we live for our work.
Work to live, don’t live to work
I know from about five years of work with various expert professionals that this is not healthy. In order to be healthy in body/mind/spirit, we need our economic activity to function as a support for our higher needs. It needs to be fuel and a means of expression, growth, and travel. It needs to be the strong, well-fed, healthy horse–one that is properly taken care of, the care of which we participate in but are not solely responsible for–that we can drive, that can carry us to where we can most fully and naturally express our being. It must NOT be a whipping rider upon our backs. We must NOT be beasts of burden for economic activity, and we must NOT become time pressers, whipping riders ourselves, which we inevitably do within our current system.
To express this through the image of the caterpillar, the work of the caterpillar is to climb a tree and digest bits and pieces of the tree’s leaves so that it can gain the strength and girth to transform into a creature that can overcome gravity. From there it flies, not only inspiring the imaginations of other creatures but also literally fertilizing new life. Our work must likewise function to support each individual’s full and complete realization as a living being. Only then can we become something previously unimaginable, and play a vital role in supporting literally all other life. We can become both strong and graceful. We can defy gravity but with feather-light feet–not steel and fire–and the same magical ability as bees to enable other species to produce and perpetuate life.
We do not need to be born down upon in order to “produce” most effectively. We need our most natural expressions to be supported and appreciated and received.
By being supported by large, healthy community organisms like trees, caterpillars grow beyond imaginable limits. Their transformation is supported by the tree’s powerful but also flexible structure. This is integrated downward into symbiotic relationship with the earth, and upward, again symbiotically, through earthbound space and into the sky. The tree, a large and robust system, rests on the earth, a yet larger and even more robust system, which is able to support the tree’s upward growth into the sky. And perhaps even more importantly, the tree’s resting within the earth makes the earth itself more robust.
Creative versus destructive destruction
There is destruction within the formation of a tree and a butterfly, but it is primarily a creative destruction. It is not greedy. It takes only what it needs and in fact takes the purpose of what supports it further than the earth itself is capable. Then the butterfly takes the tree’s upward and outward ambitions further than the tree itself can go. And then it brings the life back down to the earth, which is replenished. In this we see that a tree being a tree fortifies the earth and builds (quite passively) a butterfly, and this butterfly just being a butterfly participates in supporting all life.
Good life, good death
In this system, each organism’s death is a good death because it has both come from and furthered creation. Leaves fall and turn to soil. Butterflies become food for birds or other insects or bacteria. A good death supports a good life. And a good life supports a good death.
Each part in this ecosystem works both ways. It draws downward upon the strength of a system more vast and robust. In so doing it grows upward, vast and robust enough to support the growth and transformation of other life. And eventually upward and upward, but still with a direct, if broken, line deep into the earth.
Likewise, our work needs to function to provide a creative outlet or conduit or perhaps aquifer for our productive, upward drives. It needs also to provide fuel for that creativity and literally every other aspect of our lives. Only then can it foster a creativity that, yes, digests but does not utterly destroy its foundations.
When an infestation occurs, you have, essentially, a form of cannibalism. The caterpillar and its millions upon billions upon trillions of colleagues devour not only one tree, but the entire forest. Then they drop from the barren branches like rain and must travel to find new forests. Then they eat those too. This happened two years in a row in my hometown when I was in junior high school (this might be middle school in the states?).
The travelling caterpillars would pop under our bike tires. There was no way around them. There was a dark smear across the highway through town made of caterpillars squished along the asphalt as they crossed from one depleted stand of trees to another across the way. And then their massacre ended because they had destroyed their own direct line to the earth. They lost their ability to draw life up into the sky, their ability to fertilize other life, because they had eaten it all. This is gluttony and a lifeless, destructive death.
Our typical economic activity is likewise gluttonous. It consumes its foundations. It consumes us. We become living dead. We require greater and greater supports just to drag our animal bodies around and keep ourselves fed and sheltered. We–rather than growing up into the sky wherefrom we inspire, fertilize, and feed other life–fall back to the ground to consume only more, to bear no more fruit and support no further life. We live death.
Too much death fosters toxicity, suffocation, ocean dead zones. It creates islands of plastic that not only fail to feed further life, they kill it. They kill us.
Back to my present body/mind and individual process…
What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
I do not subscribe to the popular idea that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. What doesn’t kill us often only kills us later. It often turns us into living dead. My illness is such that I can no longer participate in a productive society, helping students become their best potential selves. I am dependent on great supports just to keep myself fed and sheltered, and I can offer very little if anything in return.
But I do have these supports, and it is my very sincere intention to use them well. To become not only fragile but also still somehow strong and inspiring and fertile.
I always intend to write just a few paragraphs. Hahaha. Almost there!
Here and now I am facing the challenge to overcome the fragility of my stress wrecked brain/body/spirit. A person with CFS/ME basically has permanent damage to the body’s systems that are able to take food and turn it into physical and mental energy, and systems that are able to take in information and integrate it into consciousness (and un/subconsciousness) in ways that support healthy creativity, productivity, and just being.
A person canNOT forget just being. This may be the foundation of all else, in fact.
Damage to these systems does not make you stronger. It makes you much weaker: in brief, more susceptible to physical illness and the harmful effects of stress. Life will always include stress, even at the best of times. This damage makes the way you experience life more extreme and perpetually overwhelming. You might feel like this gal/guy in “A Story: Memories of the World on Fire.”
You MUST learn then to be stronger and adopt a higher level of consciousness to deliberately compensate for those parts of your brain and cellular structures–now damaged–that used to effectively digest and thereby moderate your body/mind’s interpretations of and responses to life.
If a person doesn’t do this–if I don’t do this–life period will always be an unmanageable suffering. No amount of rest will ever be enough. No amount of healthy food. No amount of support. I MUST do this. No one can do it for me. I cannot do it alone, not by a long shot, but only I can do it through and through for me.
I’ve always been a thoughtful person, but now I don’t have a choice. I must disappear from time to time to examine my life intimately–bridge Intuition (sky) to Intellect (tree) to Instinct (earth) to Intuition (sky) to Intellect (tree) to Instinct (earth) and round and round again, again and again ad infinitum, like the perpetual cycle of the earth coming up into the sky through the butterfly and then back down to the earth in fertile life and death.
I give myself heart by remembering the adage that a life unexamined is not worth living. Who said that? Does anyone know? I can’t remember. And I’m not going to make myself look it up 😉 .
Goodbye to life as I know it
So here I am in the trappings of a cocoon, first, in death throws over a life of nearly unbounded, industrious productivity–Tyger Tyger, burning bright–and then growing pains working on the strength to break through to … what? I don’t know yet.
Certainly I won’t come out a butterfly, but I like the idea of a strong though delicate and gracefully creative life.
If I come through this well, I will be both extremely fragile and remarkably strong. I often wonder when I see a butterfly blowing about even in a light breeze how it manages to get anywhere useful. But I guess this delicacy is yet another emblem of the perfect symbiosis of the butterfly with its own ecosystem. It goes with the breeze and I’m assuming thinks nothing of it. It would go insane otherwise! I think that’s a human problem actually. Haha. We have too many ideas of how things should be and not enough trust and willingness to play a humble (and thereby ironically monumental) part in a much larger picture. Once again my life demands the balance of contradictions into paradoxical unity. Meh. Piece of cake. Hah!
I do sense, though, that this tightrope is actually not a tightrope. It is a dance–or perhaps a Tip on the Tightrope–with steps that can be tried and failed and tried again until a rhythm is found. It does not demand perfection. It demands that I be(come) who I am, where I am.
Life is a question, and living is the exploration of the myriad possible answers. In the end there is only one to contain and conclude lot, great or small. Do I dare live mine through to its wanted conclusion? We shall see. Luckily a person can begin again at pretty much any time. 40 going on 20! Here we go!
I write to share my growing individual consciousness, and how I disappear to do this, with our collective consciousness. I hope my experiences might benefit others in some way. Right now this is all I have. But maybe that’s enough.