Failure to Launch: The Story of a Caterpillar

Katy BurkeUncategorized

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

The number of young Americans ages 25-34 who live with their parents has increased more than 10% since 2000 according to the Urban Institute. I’m sure many societal factors contribute to this, but for this post I’d like to focus on the lone individual because the thirty-something living at home can’t do much to change society. What is this person to do? What is the family to do? Of course those are not simple questions because every individual has special circumstances, his/her own walls to climb and holes to dig out, so I’m not going to talk about the individual either, not directly. I’m going to talk about a caterpillar, a caterpillar I once knew who had this very same problem.

Several years ago, when my girls were smaller, my mother sent a “Grow a Butterfly” kit to my house. Now I’m not too keen on this idea of watching a worm realize its destiny as a winged creature in the sad landscape of plastic and cardboard in my living room, but my mother fondly remembered how much my brother and I loved ours when we were young, and she was right—my girls would love it too. They were fascinated with the growth of the caterpillars and concerned when not all attached themselves to the lid of the jar to form their chrysalides. With the four that made it that far, we followed the instructions securing the lid itself to the ceiling of a much larger enclosure to which they would eventually emerge, transformed. When the day finally arrived for “The Emergence,” I was disappointed that my daughters were with their father and would miss it. That was before I knew what was coming…or, rather, not coming.

The first butterfly started to wiggle and within just moments, it was crawling out of itself effortlessly. Amazing. Suddenly, it plummeted to the floor of the enclosure, and I was concerned for it seemed too far a drop for such a tiny creature. But before I could fully entertain that thought, the animal nimbly righted itself and majestically swept its brightly painted wings overhead. It stood still, proud as a peacock. I felt I had just witnessed a coronation.

Soon after the others followed suit, but none with the same grace and perfection as the first. There was some struggle, taking minutes not moments. One sort of limped along after the fall, leaving a trail of red-stained water, which I understood to be the watercolor of wings, not blood. Another had a dwarfed wing, though it didn’t seem to impede its movement in the least. It was the fourth, however, that truly held my attention. He remained hanging with no sign of emergence. I could see the pattern of his wings clearly. The chrysalis was completely transparent, the most feeble wall of tissue paper between us. Yet, he was so far away. All potential, but nothing more.

Hours later, I noticed that he started to swing, just barely. Many minutes passed before he began to break open the casing and proceed to writhe and wriggle, turning himself out. Unfortunately, he was not successful in this endeavor. What took the others mere minutes, was taking him hours. I tried to preoccupy myself and not think about it, but there in the corner of my living room was a tiny creature struggling to survive. He didn’t move constantly. He took breaks often, and eventually it seemed that he hardly moved at all. That’s when “The Great Panic” set in. I felt I had to do something. I was sure he was dying. So I did what any rational person would do; I googled it. You really can learn anything on the web. I found step-by-step instructions on how to rescue him. There began “The Interference.”

First, I carefully detached the chrysalis with tweezers then laid him on a sterile tissue. Next, I soaked a cotton swab in sugar water and held it near his head, which had partially broken free from the casing. I thought he must be exhausted and perhaps dehydrated. I was trying to renew his strength. Then, well…then I tried to carefully slit the casing open with cuticle scissors. I know, I know! I panicked, ok! I had only snipped a tiny bit with a shaking hand before I thought, “Katy, are you a lunatic?! What are you doing?!! You’ll destroy him with your monstrous hands!” Before I had stooped so low, I wanted to do something, anything. I thought nothing could be worse than the “The Great Panic.” Now, I wish I had done nothing, for what followed, “The Period of Epic Shame and Hopeless Doom,” was definitely worse. What had I done? I wanted my own chrysalis to crawl into.

I put the scissors down and just sat, staring out the window. It was a beautiful day. Everything was green except the blue, blue sky. It haunted me; it made the sight before me on the table altogether more hideous. Until it suddenly occurred to me that he should be out there. It was the right thing to do, the only thing to do. If he’s not going to make it, it would be much more honorable for him to die in the natural light of day. And perhaps, he’d feel inspired? struggle again? break free? It was wishful thinking, but it felt right. I felt peace about it, so that’s just what I did. I laid him tenderly in the garden outside my front door and prayed.

I promised myself I wouldn’t keep checking on him. I had interfered enough. It wasn’t until I awoke the next morning that I allowed myself to take a look. He wasn’t there, but a perfectly formed papery thin chrysalis casing with a tiny snip on the end, was. In the night, I had worried that a larger insect would take him, but the evidence was clear. There was no sign of violence. He had broken free, FREE!! I know it sounds ridiculous, but my eyes welled up with tears. I had invested a lot in this little bug. Satisfied, I turned back to the house when I saw, sitting on the overhang above my window, a monarch butterfly, MY butterfly. This time, I smiled. He looked good.

This is just a story, a little experience I once had. I realize it doesn’t provide a whole lot of answers to the problem of failure to launch, and I’m not suggesting that parents of adult children just put their kids outside! I know life is more complicated than that. However, there are concepts worth adopting that seem essential to moving forward in life—notably: honor, inspiration, and struggle. It wasn’t until later that I learned butterflies must struggle to emerge, so their wings can gain enough strength for flight. When I came back in the house after the morning victory, I noticed that the first butterfly was still in the same regal position. Sadly, it was dead, crystalized in time. Perhaps, if it had struggled more. It’s hard to know.

[Photo Credit: CSIRO]