• Matthew Emerson

Metamorphosis: More Than Meets the Eye

Updated: Aug 14, 2019

Such horrid, wretched creatures. ~Matthew Emerson

Today's article is written by a guest author, Theodore Clayton. Clayton graduated from Waynesburg University with a B.S. in Biology, and now works as an Assistant Scientist in Immunochemistry at PPD Laboratories.

Nature is an incredible source for relevant metaphors, especially for metaphors concerning becoming better, faster, stronger, and more resilient. This week, I want to explore the well-known metaphor of the caterpillar turning into a butterfly and add some more depth to everyone’s favorite flying insect (except you Matt, I’m sorry these magnificent creatures terrify you.)

Have you ever felt like a formless blob? It’s ok. Me too. One too many gas station burritos will do that to you. But, you know what else was a blob? The magnificent butterfly. It wasn’t always a pretty creature. And it didn’t turn into one easily either. Just as a caterpillar finishes encasing itself within a cocoon, something magnificent happens.

It’s been two weeks since the Monarch caterpillar hatched from his egg upon the milkweed plant. As the sun rises above the forest, the caterpillar, plump and long, inches his way up a leaf and begins spinning silk, attaching himself to the underside of the leaf. By mid-afternoon, the caterpillar has encased himself in his silken cocoon, and the process of metamorphosis begins. As soon as the cocoon is sealed, the caterpillar begins secreting enzymes which break down his body. Five days into his ten day transformation, the once plump caterpillar has been reduced to a formless mass of proteins.

But things are not as they seem. The breakdown of the butterfly is not so random as it would appear, if we could see inside the cocoon with our naked eye. Distributed throughout the caterpillar’s body are small unique structures called “imaginal discs.” When a caterpillar turns into protein soup, the only structures that remain are these discs. It is the duty of these disks to construct new anatomical structures from the caterpillar protein soup, such as antennae or wings.

Once ten days have passed, the caterpillar has metamorphosized into a butterfly. But our little friend isn’t out of the woods yet. To finish his transformation, the Monarch must exit his small cocoon by squeezing his body through an impossibly small hole in the cocoon. This is a critical stage of the entire process. As a result of his transformation, the new butterfly’s body is filled with fluid, and its wings are small and shriveled. It basically looks opposite of what it should look like. But, by pushing itself through that small tight hole. The fluid in its body is flushed into the small wings, expanding them to their full size. Once this arduous physical challenge is complete, the butterfly is now in its final form, and fully flight capable. All thanks to some good-ol fashioned struggle.

There are two core concepts to take away from this. First, the struggle can push things to where they need to be into the proper places in our lives. Second, you’re stronger than you think. Even when you feel formless, there is always a part of you that is capable of becoming something greater, like the imaginal discs of a butterfly. But, you won’t be able to become that something greater if you don’t sacrifice your current form.

Now, I’m not saying that you need to become a protein puddle to become the ideal you (can you imagine?) but I am saying that there is a vulnerability to this. If you want to improve, you must first admit that you aren’t what you want to be or should be. And that’s scary. Just as scary as a caterpillar surrenders solid form as it turns into a soup.

Let’s say you’ve made some poor culinary choices for the past few years, like I did in college with those burritos, and they’re beginning to manifest as love handles on your waistline. After a few days of sucking in your gut while posing for those Instagram pics, you sigh and shake your head. Enough is enough. You’re not as fit as you used to be.

Vulnerability. You’ve spun your cocoon.

Then, you decide to get in shape by going to the gym. And if you want a full body transformation, you’ll need to change your entire lifestyle around. Not only do you sacrifice free time to spend at the gym, you also have to change your diet to foods that will fuel your transformation. Bye bye greasy pizzas and large steins of beer.

You’ve begun to secrete enzymes and turn into a puddle.

And the first week really does feel like that! You feel like garbage. Tired. Hungry. Irritable. What was the point of this again?

You’re a bloated butterfly with shriveled wings.

It almost seems like too much. But, you’ve come too far to give up now. In the mirror…is that…is that the beginnings of a six pack? You persevere, and push through that pain, your efforts and commitment begin to change you. You can walk up those stairs without wheezing. Those boxes aren’t as heavy. And eventually you feel invigorated with energy you thought was long gone.

You’ve squeezed out of the cocoon, and your wings are now fully deployed. You’re ready to fly.

The struggle to change is never pleasant, but it is always worth it. The caterpillar doesn’t go through all of this struggle and pain to remain a caterpillar…It endures this incredible process so that it may become something far greater.

The dying to yourself so that you may live may seem like a strange paradox, but it’s quite reminiscent of one of the oldest myths in the world. The story of Jesus Christ. He was a mortal man, but also God. And rather than wield his power like the Greek gods of old, he chose to live a life of sacrifice. Literally dying (so the story goes) that he may live again.Further, so that humanity, through Him could become something greater. The inherent idea here is that going through hardship for a time can radically transform you. Not for the rest of your life, but for a time. In the case of the butterfly, the most difficult hardship is pushing its fat body though the small cocoon hole. To reiterate, when it does this, fluid from its body is redistributed into its tiny wings, deploying them to their full size.

Applying this metaphor to our lives, hardship and struggle force us to reorganize and reprioritize our resources. For example, when you’re strapped for cash, it sucks, but the experience grants you an opportunity to learn more effective money management skills. And when that’s established, those skills allow your wealth to grow. And then, you have the money needed to pursue those goals and dreams that once seemed too lofty!

No matter your background, I think we can all take a lesson from the Christ story and the butterfly.

What could you become if you pushed yourself a little harder, and directed the fluid into your wings?

Special thanks to Theodore Clayton, our guest author this week, for sharing his insight with us. Clayton is a scientist in the area of Immunochemistry.

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