I’ve recently learned something interesting about caterpillars. Inside the caterpillar body, there are clumps of cells called imaginal discs. These discs, which carry the butterfly DNA, are dormant for most of the caterpillar’s life.
Once the caterpillar enters the pupa stage, where it’s encased in a chrysalis, embryonic cells called imaginal cells begin to sprout from these imaginal discs. The caterpillar’s immune system doesn’t recognize these cells as belonging to the caterpillar. The DNA in them is different from that of other cells, so the immune system kills them off.
Imaginal cells continue to sprout, faster and faster. They migrate toward each other and form clusters, then the clusters start to organize. The caterpillar’s immune system becomes overwhelmed. It fails. At this point the caterpillar’s body dissolves into a liquid mass.
The liquefied body of the caterpillar provides the imaginal cells nourishment to power their growth. From each imaginal disc, a separate part of the butterfly body is formed. One disc makes the cells for each wing, one for each leg, each antennae and so on.
When the body of the butterfly is complete, the chrysalis turns transparent. The butterfly struggles to break out of it. It has to break out on its own. If it has help breaking out of the chrysalis, its wings will never develop the strength to fly. The push against the resistant chrysalis is what strengthens its wings so it can eventually fly.
I was struck by how the caterpillar’s immune system tries to prevent the metamorphosis from a lowly, crawling worm to a soaring butterfly. Denial is like that. Like the immune system, denial keeps the world as you know it, intact. It helps you function as you are, as you have always been.
Eventually though, denial becomes an obstacle toward growth. Like the caterpillar’s immune system, it prevents us from moving into the next stage of the adult imago.
Breaking out of denial requires that we see the world differently. The caterpillar again shows us a metaphor. He prepares for his transformation by hanging upside down so that his world view is 180 degrees the opposite of what it had been.
To shed denial, it helps to turn everything upside down. New art students are advised to turn their subject upside down. The view is different from what they’re accustomed to, so it reveals things that had gone unnoticed. When everything is upside down, the mind’s tendency to fill in the blanks with preconceived ideas is temporarily turned off while we regain our bearing.
Identity and Values
In his last molting, the caterpillar sheds his incarnation as a caterpillar. When the final caterpillar skin is removed, it reveals a chrysalis. At first, it’s soft and vulnerable but it soon hardens into a cocoon. This final molting is like our own shedding of an identity.
In Girardian Theory, our identity is defined by what we choose as valuable and desirable. Girard tells us that these desires are acquired by watching what others choose as desirable. Values define us. Values propel our actions and perceptions.
Shedding old values, we shed old identity and make room for new values, a new identity, new perceptions and new behaviors. At some point we know that the old caterpillar values no longer define us. Those values were acquired values. They came from mimesis, the tendency to copy our being from someone else’s being, so they are shallow values. In shedding those values, we begin to understand that our true identity is to be found inside ourselves. The hard shell of the chrysalis represents a boundary against external influence because the metamorphosis comes from within.
The caterpillar’s previous life provides the nourishment and energy needed for the new to arise. He had spent his caterpillar life consuming voraciously to enlarge his body. When it dissolves, it serves as the nourishment for his new and true identity. Similarly, we spend our lives as mimetic creatures, accumulating what we desire. We don’t realize that we only desired it because someone else did. Our desires were modeled to us, as a “good thing”. When we finally let go of those desires, accumulated material is transformed into accumulated experience. Experience which nourishes wisdom and understanding, the power to create our new values and express our true identity.
In his cocoon, the caterpillar is safe to fall apart. In doing, he lets go and allows what was always waiting dormant inside him, to recreate him. All the things he needs for his new life begin to form spontaneously once the immune system relinquishes control. The simple, worm-self dissolves into a liquid and a new, complicated creature with wings and the ability to procreate, arises from this formless primordial soup.
Letting go is always a leap of faith. Just as the caterpillar can’t imagine being a butterfly, neither can we know what is waiting for us when we let go of control. What we do know is that control is what keeps us worm-like. The biblical representation of Satan as a snake and prince of the material world, is an apt one. His being is a shameful one. He crawls on the ground like a lowly worm, decked in a beautiful skin, in denial of his shameful being. His recursive shame is revealed in his coiled posture. The snake often sheds his skin but there is always another snake underneath, an analogy to the psychopathic mask which, when dropped, only reveals another mask, another lie. That’s because he is the lie and he lives in denial.
When the butterfly has fully formed, the chrysalis becomes transparent, revealing the colors of its wings. We can see the potential butterfly waiting to break out of its last incarnation in the chrysalis.
Resistance was part of the plan.
In a final metaphor, the butterfly must break out on its own without help. The resistance it encounters from the boundaries of its last incarnation, help it to gain strength in its wings. Without that resistance to push against, fluid from it’s abdomen won’t fill the wings. The wings don’t stretch and it will never fly. This metaphor reveals how resistance creates strength. Even our denial was part of the plan to create our Imago Dei, the incarnation of ourselves that can soar and create.
As the butterfly spreads his wings for a maiden flight, he retains the memories of having been a worm. Research shows that a caterpillar trained to avoid specific odors by electric shock association, still remembers to avoid those same odors after metamorphosis.
The butterfly’s previous life had served a purpose. He’s not ashamed of having started out a lowly crawling worm because that’s how he came to the point of becoming a butterfly. He learned the lesson he needed, that flying is about letting go…