By Susan Winter Fledderus
I was visiting with a friend, enjoying time outside in her backyard recently, and I left my bag on the ground beside my chair. After a time, I noticed that a very large bug had crawled up onto my bag and was clinging there, immobilized. But it looked strange, almost as if it had two heads.
It took me a few minutes to recognize it as a cicada nymph in the early stages of shedding its skin and transforming into its adult form. Over the next hour or so, we interrupted our visit frequently to check on its progress with a mixture of fascination and repulsion. It was amazing but bizarre!
So often in stories, on inspirational cards and in social media memes, butterflies are used as the iconic image of transformation. There is a tidy, cozy cocoon, and then, admittedly after some effort, a beautiful butterfly emerges in all of its gorgeous colours and patterns. It flits happily away to sip nectar from pretty flowers, providing helpful services of pollination along the way.
But my experience of transformation is much more similar to that of the cicada. In Canada, the cicada spends about a year as a nymph underground. In the USA, there are species that spend 13 or 17 years there, tunneling through dirt and mud and living off sap from the roots of a tree. It eventually claws its way up through the dirt to the surface and hopes for a tree or something, even a bag, to climb so it can shed its skin. It leaves behind a split open, empty larval case. And once it emerges, it soon starts its loud buzzing whine. It’s not very glamourous.
Lots of times, change made by people isn’t glamourous either. It can start with sometimes long times of being mired down in the dirt of difficult circumstances before we have the capacity or the resources to take the next small step. It often involves hard work of clawing to get to some surface, some level place where we are grounded enough to begin. And then it might feel like some kind of violent tearing apart of the old, ill-fitting skin, the old ways of being.
It can involve ugly-crying where we can’t catch our breath. It can feel like despair, or a type of death. Sometimes it involves leaving behind a shell of what used to be as we climb a little higher up in whatever place we find ourselves. Whatever wings we develop might take ourselves no further than higher up in the same tree or to a new one a few yards over. It often isn’t pretty at all. And yet, it is amazing!
It often feels much more useful to compare my personal growth to that of a cicada rather than a butterfly. It helps me have more realistic expectations, I think, and to be more patient with myself. It seems important to honour the depths of where we started so we can honour the effort and distances we go and the pain and loss along the way.
And there is beauty too, in the bug-eyed cicada and its courageous climb to transformation, as well as in our own hard-won growth and new beginnings. When we pause, we feel the satisfaction of hard work resulting in gains made, a sense of gratification about the new little steps taken, the relief as challenges recede behind us, the occasional heady pleasure of recognizing how far we have come, the pride in breaking negative patterns to give ourselves and our loved ones a better present and future.
Transformation can be ugly, but so beautiful too.
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network