I once witnessed a butterfly sliding head first out of its chrysalis. It struggled for an hour, pressing its wings against the confining shell as it wiggled millimeters at a time toward freedom. Finally, it emerged enough to grasp the casing and pull itself up to a leaf where it sat opening and closing its wings, applauding the triumphal entrance into its final form.
A miracle, people call this metamorphosis. The creature goes into a shell as one form and comes out another form entirely.
When I taught college courses, several years ago, sometimes, right before my eyes, the beginning stages of another metamorphosis took place. Usually, it started during a conference with freshmen from my grammar classes. I remember one in particular.
Chris answered the summons to my office following repeated offenses in class. He slouched beside my desk, arms crossed as I listed off his trespasses: incomplete homework, late papers, texting in class, a complacent attitude. Through my incriminating diatribe, his gaze remained glued to the side of my desk. I folded my hands, letting silence spur a response.
After several moments, he blurted out, “It’s too hard. I don’t want to grow up.”
When the initial horror of his confession passed, I smiled.
At some point, a caterpillar, all plump and bristly, ceases his munching and squirming to obey the summons of nature. He has outgrown his skin several times already; now he’s down to the last hard layer, the chrysalis. Within that chrysalis, one of nature’s most fascinating transformations takes place.
The caterpillar seeks out a strong leaf or branch to anchor his chrysalis to and wait out the change. Who knows if the creature feels pain when he’s wound so tightly in that chrysalis. We hardly consider his discomfort, too enamored by the beauty that emerges.
“I just want my box of rocks.” Chris stared at the desk again, gaze blank, mind full. “My family didn’t have much money, but I had a great time playing with those rocks when I was a kid.”
Somehow, in the madness of a 19-year old pining for a box of rocks, I found hope. Acknowledging a challenge, even if only to resist it, is the first step to acceptance. Chris knew it was time to stop munching on the juvenile memories and the patience of his teachers. But he just hadn’t chosen to wrap himself tightly in discipline.
Some people are raised accustomed to a chrysalis of restriction or discipline—others, like Chris, have to make deliberate choices to climb inside, like a caterpillar finding a leaf and wrapping himself in the constricting silk. This choice is instinctive for the caterpillar.
My students represented different stages of the process. Because of life and circumstances, a few had already flown away, mature and beautiful adults, capable not only of discipline but of finding joy in their discipline.
Other students were still waiting out the confinement in their chrysalis, the first slits beginning to open through which they would emerge better creatures, eager for growth.
I certainly met some students who had not made the choice to transform at all. Unwilling to go with the forward motion of life, they still inched along on the ground, unaware that change was even on the schedule.
Others, like Chris, stared at the leaf, contemplating the constraints of a chrysalis, fearing the discomfort of transformation waiting in the form of homework assignments, job responsibilities, and family duties.
The butterfly only goes through four stages—egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and the iconic winged form. People, however, have no such simple process; we are ever morphing. Change, then, is a constant, a stability we can cling to.
“Resist aiding the butterfly,” entomologists admonish. To peel away the chrysalis, to ease the creature’s labor, is to impede him; the struggle fills the butterfly’s wings with blood, strengthening them for flight.
“Growing up is no fun,” Chris reiterated his frustration.
“You’re right,” I wholeheartedly agreed. “But it’s worth it.”
I had his attention.
“Now, get your paper turned in next class,” I said, “and do your homework.”
He smiled, then wearily walked out of my office.
Perhaps it would have eased his load to know that I was still changing, that I too sometimes resisted the process. At the beginning of each school year, I despised the restraint of responsibilities as students’ papers and projects shortened my time for leisure. But each time I invested in my students, working through their apprehension and apathy, my chrysalis burst open to loose me from the constraints of my too-small, selfish heart. Their discomfort, in some ways, intensified mine, yet in ways far surpassing the pain, broadened my joy and each day freed a new portion of myself to fly.