What is it that allows us to go a new way — whether in our personal lives or in the collective life of a city, a nation, or the world? There is an apt metaphor in the lifecycle of the caterpillar and its metamorphosis into a butterfly. Caterpillars are eating machines. (If you are a gardener, you probably know this!) They can consume hundreds of times their own weight in a single day, defoliating many plants in the process, before eventually entering into chrysalis. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar body breaks down, dissolving into a kind of protoplasmic stew. Within that are what biologists have poetically named “imaginal cells.” It is these cells that carry the pattern for butterfly. At first they are destroyed by the immune system as “other” to the self-ness of caterpillar. But as more of them emerge, and especially as they begin to link together, the “self” is redefined — transmuted completely.
Imaginal cells are present in the skin of the caterpillar its entire life, but remain dormant until the crisis of breakdown allows them to develop, gradually replacing the caterpillar pattern with the one for butterfly. Perhaps our destructive over-consuming society is poised for a collective metamorphosis. Perhaps each of us is an imaginal cell, holding the blueprint for a new way of being. And perhaps as we come together in the vision of possibility, a momentum is generated redefining our selves and our world. What looks (and no doubt feels) like the worst conceivable outcome for the caterpillar is actually the threshold for an expanded realm of existence: the birth of liberation and flight.
In the mid-1990s, when I was living in Durham, NC, the local Life and Science Museum hosted a special outdoor exhibit on butterflies. The designated area had been turned into a natural habitat incubator with literally hundreds of chrysalises of varied sizes, shapes and colors hanging like so many ornaments from the tree branches. They were so plentiful that if you stood in any one place for just a short while you were certain to witness the process of emergence. Again and again this arduous birthing was repeated with these shriveled wet creatures fighting their way free of a self-woven womb that had become their imprisonment. It was like the Nature Channel live, up-close and personal. The newly developed beings bore little resemblance to butterflies — they had fat wet bodies and little stubby wings. But as they pumped the fluid from their swollen bodies into their extending wings, a second metamorphosis took place; one in which they claimed their new form in all its power and beauty. And then they flew. The whole process was some serious hard work. Yet without that struggle, their wings would never gain the size and strength necessary to support their new existence.
We can’t just build a new world on the infrastructure of the old one. In metamorphosis the caterpillar doesn’t simply sprout wings and become a flying caterpillar — it dissolves into formless goo, and from that goo, something entirely new emerges, no longer recognizable as what it was before. As the destruction and chaos of these apocalyptic times are forcing the collapse and dissolution of our outworn social structures, we have the opportunity for collective metamorphosis. Some folks are still trying desperately to resurrect the caterpillar, or pin wings on it, but we can’t tinker our way out of a system that was conceived in domination and has genocide at its root. A total dissolution and transmutation is required.
The great warrior-poet Audre Lorde cautioned that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. … In a world of possibility for us all, our personal visions help lay the groundwork for political action.” Dominant forces stay in power not by convincing people their way is the best way, but by convincing us it is the only way. Artists and visionaries are dangerous to the system because they conjure new possibilities and offer them as a sacred and subversive medicine, calling us beyond the status quo. Art, music, and writing have the power to transform consciousness, and that can transform the world. **  Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” (1984) In: Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007.
[Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash]
Note: This post is an excerpt from my book-in-progress.