There’s an image going around the internet of a seed bursting open. Along with the picture, is a quote from Cynthia Occelli. I know nothing about Cynthia Occelli, other than this is what she says about seeds:
For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.
This quote, is of course, a metaphor not just for us as individuals, but for our times. The world is going through what appears to be chaos, and perhaps, just like the person who sees the seed broken open and believes it to be destroyed, we cannot see a bigger picture of how our world might be growing.
While I sometimes feel sad to think that someone else’s suffering could lead to benefit for me, it does seem that sometimes out of pain and suffering we can learn and grow. After all, it was in response to violence that we started 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion.
There’s another story that goes around the internet, mostly in spiritual circles. In it, a boy finds a butterfly struggling to get out of its chrysalis. He feels so sorry for it that eventually he helps it out by making the hole in its chrysalis bigger. In doing so, he has interrupted a natural process that is needed to strengthen the butterfly’s wings. It is so weakened it spends the rest of its life crawling along the ground.
It’s a brilliant metaphor for why we need life’s struggles isn’t it? Or at least, it would be if it were true.
I had planned use this story to illustrate the idea that struggle can produce beauty, when it occurred to me it might be best to check facts. I found some beautiful photos of scans revealing caterpillars turning into butterflies, and the accompanying article says that when scientists dissect insects at the pupae stage to try and understand the process of transformation, such work always destroys the insect that’s being observed.
However, dissecting is somewhat different to helping a butterfly out of a chrysalis.
It’s entirely possible this boy and the butterfly he saw did exist. It’s entirely possible that he did help the struggling butterfly out of its chrysalis, and that it was weak and couldn’t fly. It’s the interpretation of this is that turns out to be wrong. After much searching, I found a page in Wikipedia Science that explains. Someone there had asked a butterfly breeder, and this is the response:
The splitting and emerging from the pupa takes “shorter than it takes you to skin a banana” – quick, simple, easy, no struggle.
They go on to say: An animal that cannot expand enough to split the pupa skin is sick.
So that butterfly wasn’t prevented from flying because the boy helped it, but because it was already weak and sick.
This reminds me of research published when my elder daughter was a baby – it showed that babies who had nightlights in their rooms grew up to be short-sighted. I switched it off our baby’s nightlight, and she woke howling, so it went back on. I worried about it, and, sure enough, by age eleven our daughter was short-sighted.
What a bad parent I was!
Except, there’s more to it. Her sister also slept in the room with a nightlight and, in spite of being at high risk due to her premature birth, her eyesight is better than 20-20.
A year after that study, the researchers published an admission: they’d overlooked a very important factor. It turns out that most babies who have nightlights don’t have them because of fear of the dark, but because they have a parent who is short-sighted. So it seems our older daughter inherited her dad’s eyesight, and our younger daughter inherited mine.
Returning to Cynthia Occelli’s quote – is seeing it as a metaphor for our world, or even our own growth. accurate?
Perhaps. But perhaps not in the way we might expect. There’s a danger of becoming fatalistic, and believing there’s nothing we can or should do. We watch from a distance, as we would watch that seed break up and rebuild into a flower. Our world goes through chaos and we think, “We shouldn’t interfere; it’s how it’s meant to be.” Or we see poverty, refugees, climate change, feel out of our depth and make half-hearted attempts to do something, all the while hoping there’s some bigger order we can’t see.
And now I’m going to tell you another story, that can also be found in many versions on the internet. This one is a parable, and not intended to be taken as truth, but it contains some truth for all that.
A man hears a warning of a terrible storm coming to his town, so bad that residents are advised to leave. This man prays to God, who promises to save him. He stays at home. The storm comes, the man’s house is flooded. At first it’s not too bad and some neighbours offer to take him to safety in their van. But he refuses, because God has promised to save him. The water rises and a man comes by in a canoe and offers to take him to dry land. He refuses to go, because God is going to save him. The water rises some more, he’s out on his roof and a helicopter comes by – but yep, you guessed it – he’s waiting for God.
He drowns and when he gets to heaven, he asks God why he didn’t keep his promise.
I probably don’t need to tell you what God said!
But we all do that don’t we? Even if we aren’t waiting for God, we wait for a guru, teacher, boss, parent or some other authority figure to give us permission to do the right thing. We writers possibly do this more than most, we think we need to wait till we reach a certain level of success before we can call ourselves writers. In Writing Down the Bones Natalie Goldberg says: We have trouble connecting with our own confident writing voice that is inside all of us, and even when we do connect and write well, we don’t claim it. She also says: It is difficult for us to comprehend and value our own lives.
For many of us, this seems to be the case, not just with writing, but with life. We think what we do is too small, has no significance or importance. Even as I write that I notice a thought: “You shouldn’t say that, it will seem as if you think you do have some importance.”
These thoughts come into our minds a thousand times a day, possibly more. That’s not a problem. The problem only occurs when we believe them.
There’s a tendency to think we have to do all or nothing. This can be exhausting. If I try to save all people, to take them all into my boat (especially if they don’t want to come) then we’ll all most likely drown.
There’s another thing – often we think that “helping” comes in one variation. (Or at least I used to think this.) It means we go out and volunteer in day centres, soup kitchens of hospices. It means we “give up our time” for the community. It means what we do is visible, can be audited, counted, can be labelled.
Several years ago, I worked in teaching, and for part of that time, I worked in a newly opened unit for kids with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. I chose to do this during gaps in my timetable. Some teachers didn’t much like that our school had this unit; they thought it was molly-coddling misbehaving kids. I sometimes felt as if I needed to prove the value of what we were doing, and when a kid misbehaved in class, that could feel hard to prove.
Then I read an article about research on kids in inner-city Chicago. These kids lived in areas of high violence and crime, and they had been followed up for decades. Some grew up to become criminals, some didn’t.
What made the difference?
The only thing the researchers could find that distinguished the kids who went on to live “normal” lives from those who followed family patterns into crime was that there was one adult figure in their lives who showed them kindness.
That was all it took. Their lives might not all have been perfect, but they weren’t criminals.
I realised then that we might never know the value of the work we were doing in the unit – it might only show up ten or twenty years down the road. All we could do was keep going, and trust that if it felt like the right thing to do, it probably was.
Perhaps this could be true of anything. The seed might burst open and become a flower – but it might not. The world might be going through a transition that will lead to greater peace and understanding – or it might not. When I look back over our history and see that just a few hundred years ago, kings were murdering anyone who disagreed with them, I think perhaps we are heading along a path to a kinder world.
I don’t know that, of course, but it’s easier for me to take action if I trust that there’s a chance that action might just be of some value, than it is worry about whether what I’m doing will make a difference.
And there’s another thing. Just as when those scientists dissect insects at the pupae stage to try and understand the process of transformation, it always destroys the insect that’s being observed, perhaps if we spend too much time dissecting our own or humanity’s or the world’s transformation, we destroy it.
Will writing about compassion transform our world? Will sharing what works for me help you? Who knows? But I do know I’m not about to stop.
And that I finally understand what Martin Luther meant when he said,
Even if I knew the world would go to pieces tomorrow, I would still plant that apple tree.
I love comments and will always reply (even if it sometimes takes a day or two) so please drop me a line and let me know what you think!
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