The Struggle Is Necessary

The butterfly story

You’ve probably heard the story about a man who tried to help a butterfly out of its cocoon by slitting the cocoon open. The butterfly that emerged had small, unformed wings, and died soon after. It needed the struggle out of the cocoon to force the fluid into its wings to stretch and open them so that the butterfly could fly. By trying to shortcut the process, the man had instead doomed the creature.

There are many versions of this story but the most personal and detailed version I came across is Frank Dupree’s Metamorphosis.

The facts

I’ve been trying ascertain whether it’s a scientific fact that the butterfly needs to struggle at emergence in order for its wings to work. It seems that some species can inject the fluid into their wings from their abdomen after emerging from the cocoon.

Here’s a lovely two-minute video of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, if you’re interested in seeing the actual process.

The lesson

Sometimes it is hard watching someone you care about struggle. It could be a spouse trying to succeed in the workplace, a child grappling with school, a relative endeavouring to get a business off the ground, or a friend dazed by a painful divorce.

While it is instinctive to want to help (and we often do by giving unsolicited advice), sometimes we need to learn to wait and let the process unfold on its own. We can watch and be there should any help be required, yet not intervene when there is no real need to.

The wisest people I know practise this. When I’m going through a personal challenge, they make it clear that they are there but that I need to deal with it myself. In my younger years this response would drive me up the wall, because all I wanted was for someone else to step in and make everything alright. Now I understand where they come from, and am trying to do the same myself.

The application

Can you think of a person who is going through a hard time right now, whom you’ve been trying to help but ended up frustrating both yourself and that person?

I remember once a friend was going through a break-up and I decided to have a party to try to cheer her up. The intention was good, but in the process of working out the logistics of the party, we had a few tense moments which strained the friendship. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have tried so hard to help.

Perhaps you need to stop trying too hard as well, with regard to a specific person or situation in your life right now. A good question to ask would be: are you trying so hard to make yourself feel better, or because it will truly improve the situation?

Unfortunately sometimes the answer is clear only in hindsight. We have to make enough mistakes to start to recognise when the situation is like the butterfly and the cocoon, or when it is something else.

Wisdom certainly does not come easily, and perhaps that is the struggle that you and I have to go through on our own as well.