The Duty of Butterflies

I think a lot about the phenomenon of transformation. In some species, transformations are profound: from a larva to a butterfly. In some, it’s subtle as when a human grows from a pudgy baby to a lanky adult. Because human growth has these subtle physical differences, the domain of change is within. In how we act. For some, life and aging are the contributing factors to behaviour and the change may only go as cause and effect will push someone. For some, life events get to a critical mass and the psychological changes are profound. In turn, they can spark physiological changes almost as significant as turning larvae into butterflies.

When I think about transformation, I go to SF: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; Babylon 5; Protector; Limitless; Doctor Who. I could be coy and make my references abstract, but I’m a nerd and it’s okay to let my nerd colours fly every once in awhile. It’s led me to lots of ruminations on the topic of transformation. It’s taken me to the question of what happens afterwards. What happens after we cross the demarcation point of transformation? What are the duties of a butterfly?

We think butterflies are pretty spectacles. But the butterfly phase is the end of life for the creature. They hatch from eggs and crawl around as caterpillars. They chomp through their plant of choice and fatten up until one day, they cocoon themselves and begin to change. They emerge from their chrysalis and take to the air. Nature has many mechanisms for spreading seeds. Some plants have burrs and barbs meant to allow their seeds to hitch a ride on a passing animal. Some seed pods look more like helicopter blades. The butterfly is an airborne caterpillar seeding device. If caterpillars could only crawl to a nesting area, lay eggs and let their young crawl forth to repeat the process, their species would be open to geographic jeopardy. Instead, the butterfly phase lets the species go far and wide to lay their eggs. Some butterflies migrate thousands of miles to carry out their genetic mission. The duty of reproduction is so important that some butterflies species don’t carry a digestive system with them from the larval stage. They jettison their capacity for eating and thereby survival to lighten the load so that they may deliver their payload further and better without stopping to eat.

The act of transformation delivers new tools. I think it carries on new duties. In Larry Niven’s book, “Protector,” he suggested that hominids had three phases to their lives: the infant stage, the breeder phases (where they make new little infants) and a third phase: the protector phase. The idea was that breeder phase was a bloody and turbulent phase wherein breeders would fight for survival and breeding opportunities. By the time a hominid got into their forties, if they survived their best breeding years they were spent. They needed to eat a special root, the Tree-of-Life plant. A virus in the plant would spark a change and bring about the third phase in life: the protector phase. Their sexual characteristics would drop off (eep). Their brains would reorganize to make them massively intelligent. They would then take on the job of protecting their geneline. That third phase carried many opportunities and many duties.

The closest simile to the butterfly transformation that I like in SF is in the TV show, Babylon 5. In the story, two key figures used an alien apparatus to build a cocoon. They took to the cocoon and emerged as a different species. A human transformed into an alien, the Minbari. A thousand years later, a Minbari underwent the process to transform into a human-Minbari hybrid to even the balance. These characters were given the opportunity to embark on the transformation. They felt fated to do so. They took on the transformation to usher in a new era where they had tremendous responsibilities.

The fictional transformation that I align best with comes from the British TV Show, Doctor Who. Doctor Who is a Timelord. When his people suffer a mortal injury, they undergo a transformation: a regeneration. Regeneration is seldom their idea. Outside forces– usually violent forces– spark the change. They emerge physically different. Their demeanor is different. In shedding their former self, they sever some of the previous ties. Donning a new persona, some Doctors have taken on new roles for the times they lived in. All of that strikes a chord with me. I was profoundly unhappy before 2013 and knew that I needed something to be different. Inside forces sparked the changes; and outside factors accelerated those changes. I don’t know if I’m going to emerge from this cycle of change as someone different. I think I’m adopting change as the new normal.

All of these fictional lessons of transformation have told me that change doesn’t spontaneously happen for no good reason. That’s the difference between change and fashion. Water runs downhill. Nature is pernicious but it chooses the path of least resistance. When change happens it happens because it’s a necessary next step. My sharp turn / big switch in 2013 was a reconciliation to the environment of abuse I was living in. It gave the pressure an avenue of escape. That was necessary. What came next felt like service. I was bound to press ahead and step through the stages of transformation. I could not be a boat that never got to port. I could not be in perpetual confusion and turmoil. I owed it to myself and those around me to have a period of flux that was only so long. Transformations are about marked change. Being in a nebulous multiple-state dynamic serves no one. It was my duty to get through it. Along the way, I’ve tried to record what I have experienced, in case what I have learned helps others.

I embarked on the process of transformation, I wanted to be something different on the far side. I wanted to be more capable and accomplished. I saw in myself a lot of places where my make-up led to self-sabotage. That was a battle to be fought. My self-sabotage never just equated to social- or business-suicide: it usually came with a body count. I would get something going and then give up. People who flocked to my banner would be let down and their efforts would be in vain. My duty is to get somewhere with what I’m doing. I owe it to myself and I owe it to others who have cleaved off time, resources and goodwill for me to succeed.

When I pass this demarcation point of change, I would like to think that I might be more enlightened and “have all the answers.” I would like to think that I could offer my advice to others on the practical shortcuts. Our world is full of “hackers” – growth hackers, bio-hackers, culture hackers. Hackers don’t eliminate the work, they eliminate the false starts and blind alleys that people go down. It would be nice if i could offer some signage to the roads that lay ahead of others.