Incipience: The Mystery of Becoming

Last week, I arrived back at work from a lunchtime errand to discover surfaces everywhere topped with clear plastic take-out containers. In each container was a bunch of milkweed leaves and a caterpillar. Accompanying each was a handout, introducing the creature inside as an incipient butterfly. I’ve never watched a caterpillar turn into a butterfly, so I was fascinated to have this opportunity placed in front of me.

The first thing I learned is that caterpillars poop a lot. Seriously, they were productive little things. For a day or so, I watched them eat away at the milkweed, filling their containers with caterpillar “mulch”. Then I got used to their presence, busy with other things, and didn’t notice when a change took place. Suddenly, there were no caterpillars, just bright green pods hanging from the tops of each plastic container – they had become chrysalises while I wasn’t looking.

Each chrysalis started out bright green with a small line of metallic-looking gold dots across it (which I will come back to later). By this point, I was determined not to miss the remaining steps of caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation. I checked on them throughout the days, finally noticing that their color was changing. At first, it appeared that the chrysalis was turning black, but over time (and upon closer inspection) I began to see the colors of the butterfly emerge within the clear casing of the chrysalis.


And then, not too much longer and this happened:

Image 1


Many people have rhapsodized about the transformation of caterpillars to butterflies. It is an image that has been used as metaphor many times, and watching the process is endlessly fascinating. I can’t even begin to speak about it as beautifully as so many others already have. But what I loved about watching this transformation was knowing that the seeds of evolution were inside the wriggly caterpillar all along.

Science tells us that there is no structural commonality between caterpillars and butterflies. The caterpillar literally dissolves into a kind of genetic goop inside the chrysalis. Cells which had remained dormant within the caterpillar, poetically called “imaginal” cells, take over:

These little groups of cells that start developing very early in the caterpillar’s life but then they stall, and so they’re just in there waiting, and they don’t start growing until the very end of the 5th instar (the last caterpillar stage). —Journey North: Monarch Butterfly

What emerges is something completely different. But those imaginal cells? They were there from the beginning. From this I take two lessons for myself:

  • Within each of us resides the seeds of what we can become – and we can literally change our form (transform) from within.
  • What we have the potential to be is radically different from who we already are.

Remember that line of metallic dots on the green chrysalis? (If you look closely at the photos above, you can see the dots in both.) They intrigued me, so I did a little research and discovered this: they are a mystery. Science has not yet explained them. I take great pleasure in knowing this. We can transform our lives, our very sense of who we are – that potential, that incipience, exists within us. But there’s mystery in us, too. The beautiful, shining mystery of creation that defies human understanding.

This past week, everyone who stopped to look at, discuss, celebrate, and set free our butterflies noted not only the incredible biology of the process, but also the deep mystery. And we all shared, if briefly, in the joy of transformation. I can’t hold on to those moments, but I want very much to remember them. Especially at those times when I begin to feel, “This is it. I am finished becoming. I’m set now in this form, in this way of being in the world and in my own body, heart, soul.”  Because those moments are the ones when I need my own imagination (my imaginal cells, if you will) to kick in. That is when I need to remember the joy – and the beauty – that is activated with the conscious choice to change and grow.

“If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation. If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed…If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just condensed version of life then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another.”  — Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life


You are not an imposter. Your inner voice is a jerk.

“It was a little embarrassing to be reading a self-help writer and thinking, This guy gets me. But it was in this moment, lying in bed late at night, that I first realized that the voice in my head – the running commentary that had dominated my field of consciousness since I could remember – was kind of an asshole.”

— Dan Harris, from 10% Happier


The other day I had the great fun of spending time with an old friend. We first met in graduate school, and had been so simpatico that we decided “friends” was too tame a word for us. “Colleague” was too passionless, too professional. So, although we were in fact friends and colleagues, we took to calling each other “Comrades”. We were united in our…you know, whatever it was we felt so deeply about back in 1987.

Anyway, my comrade and I were not in touch for many years. Recently reconnected, it has been a joy to write (actually, to get mail because she is much better about sending things than me), to Facebook message, and now and then to be in one another’s presence. And I was finally able, last weekend, to visit her space: see her house and gardens, visit her favorite places in the college town she calls home. And to tour her office.

Now, you need to know that this friend of mine is kind of an overachiever. Ok, not really an overachiever – she is talented, brilliant, and capable of everything she has achieved. And she is a capital-A Achiever. In her office are photos of her with Presidents (yes, of the USA), members of the Cabinet and Administration (again, yes, of the USA); there are framed commendations, tons of awards, photos of her with many people whose lives she has touched through her work.

I was impressed. But not in the way one is sometimes impressed with celebrity or suffused with hero-worship for someone whose activism we admire. I was impressed by the natural feeling that these things were as they were meant to be – that my friend has simply inhabited the life that called to her. That sounds easy, like I’m suggesting that it came easily to her. Au contraire! Knowing what I know about this woman’s path, I understand that it took hurculean effort at times, that it took sacrifice and intention. I love that she was both proud and humble as I lingered over these mementos of her accomplishments.

As we left her office, I said, “I’m a little disappointed. Back in grad school we were all certain you’d DO something with your life.” Just a little humor cliche to help glide over a moment of genuine emotion.

Since returning to my daily life, I’ve been thinking about the ginormous job my friend has, and the grace with which, it seems to me, she skillfully weaves so many disparate threads. I think it is amazing and inspiring – but there’s also a voice in my head that won’t stop comparing me to her and ridiculing me for not being as capable. It tells me that any day now I’ll be found out in my own work as the incompetent, ineffectual, poseur I truly am.

As journalist Dan Harris says in the quote above, the voice in my head is kind of an asshole.

I’ve had a lot of experience with this voice – a lifetime of experience, in fact. It never shuts up. Sometimes, but not that often, it chatters benignly about strange or unrelated things: how much it would suck to be Ferris Bueller’s sister; why so many crappy books become bestsellers (yes, Fifty Shades of Gray, I’m talking about you); why do we itch? But mostly that always yammering voice is telling me I should be afraid, that I suck, that things may be good now but they’re about to change for the worse.

Since my childhood, I have known I was sensitive. More accurately, too sensitive. At least that is generally the language I heard from my family, from friends, from people who had just said something unkind or unfairly critical: “Oh, Jen, you’re too sensitive.” In order to combat that diagnosis, I’ve spent a lot of energy over the years pretending that I’m impervious. Acting nonchalant when I’ve felt hurt or fearful. Anything to avoid the appearance of being overly-sensitive.

But the voice in my head knows better. That voice knows I’m easily wounded, often frightened, sometimes paralyzed by self-doubt. Knowledge is power, so that voice uses what it knows and goes for the jugular. Especially when I contemplate taking risks or making life choices which involve new areas of endeavor.

It picks moments when I’ve relaxed a little to double-down. Admiring my “comrade” took me outside my own head in order to appreciate her accomplishments. So that voice came back harsher than ever, seizing that moment when I was vulnerable to comparison.

Luckily, I’ve got a greater understanding of how to respond than I once did. Natural health practitioner and author, Mely Brown writes:

Impostor syndrome isn’t exclusive to highly sensitive people. Many conscientious and high achieving people fall victim to this nagging fear. But the simmering discomfort about being found out is often constant for a sensitive person.

Why wouldn’t it be, considering you’ve spent a lifetime of feeling different from others and trying to fit in?… But even if you grew up displaying your sensitivity with pride, it’s unlikely you escaped the cultural pressure motivating you to disguise your real self to fit the norms.

…If you’re constantly thinking about who you should be but aren’t, and what you should be doing but can’t, understand that valuing your achievements and signature strengths allows you to show yourself as you truly are, more comfortably — even when you’re the odd one out.

Each of us has a voice that keeps a running commentary going in our heads – not just people who self-identify as sensitive. One thing we can do, as Ms. Brown so clearly states, is to value our own strengths. This means being willing to look for and admit our own strengths, rather than fearing that we’ll get too big for our britches if we identify and own them.

Another tactic I’ve learned to use is to question the veracity of that voice. The reality is, that just cuz the voice says it and it hurts doesn’t mean it is true. Lots of things that hurt us hurt because they aren’t true. And yes, sometimes the truth hurts, too. But you’ve got to spend some time questioning your inner tormenter, rather than accepting what it says whole cloth. I’ve discovered that if I stop and question a specific barb it hurls at me, mostly it melts away like an ineffectual schoolyard bully who’s been stood up to. Every now and then, I’ll even say to myself, “Stop talking to me like that. I don’t deserve it.”

Finally, and most efficiently, I’ve learned to not listen. Just because you can’t help hearing it (the voice IS inside your head, after all) doesn’t mean you have to listen to it. I am not a meditator or yogi, but I do appreciate the benefits of mindfulness: allowing the voice to run on, noticing it, but not putting energy towards it. Thinking of the stream of consciousness as just another babbling brook, providing background noise that you are in no way required to pay direct attention to is an awesome technique to master. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert yet, but I am getting better at it all the time. Often, I don’t notice how much I’m listening/giving credence to that inner mean girl until I’m feeling enough anxiety that a panic attack is imminent. But when I feel that heightened physiological affect, I usually catch on that I haven’t been practicing good mental hygiene/mindfulness.

For me, employing some of these proactive responses to that inner critic allows me to move forward rather than remain in stasis. It also allows me to enjoy others’ accomplishments without somehow feeling diminished myself. My comrade deserves to be appreciated and admired for her strengths and accomplishments. As do I. As do you. We are not impostors – we are human beings with gifts, talents, strengths and imperfections. We may be sensitive, but we don’t need to let that define or incapacitate us.

Numb and numb-er…


True…but I’d prefer to feel happy.

A few years back I was going through a period of change in my life, including allowing myself for the first time in many years to truly feel my emotions. One day as I struggled with all those feelings, my dear friend and extraordinary counselor, Tricia, handed me a tissue for my tears. Then she asked, “Would you rather feel this way, or go back to not feeling at all?”

Considering that I was crying and snotting all over myself in the middle of a work day, the idea of emotional numbness had some appeal. But I couldn’t honestly wish for it back. Even on the worst of days I felt more alive as an emotionally open person than I ever had while keeping my emotions impenetrably walled-off.

That emotional wall has been on my mind frequently as I work my way through the current transitions in my life. The final few months before I accepted a new job (entailing a return to my former hometown) were not particularly happy ones. In fact, in the six weeks prior to receiving the job offer, there wasn’t a single tear-free day. Which made it all the more strange when the tears stopped.

No crying is a good thing, right? Except that big, emotionally impactful things were happening: saying goodbye to friends I love, leaving a city I love, saying hello to friends I love and have missed, moving into a beautiful, spacious new apartment, beginning a job…all “big ticket” emotional items.

One evening I was moving around my apartment putting things away, slowly making choices about where items belong now that I have multiple rooms in which to keep them. I suddenly experienced a strong sense of disorientation. How did I get here? Whose life was this, anyway?

Because, I reasoned, if this were my life, I would feel something.

That’s when I realized that I’d fallen easily into my old habit of coping with feelings by shutting them away. And actually, it can be a useful coping mechanism when you are in the midst of huge transitions calling for management of many details. After all, it is difficult to get through a lengthy to-do list if you are stopping every few minutes to blow your nose and wipe your eyes.

The problem is that I forget to get back to feeling things once the immediate frenetic work is done. I forget that, in order to manage my difficult emotions this way, I also have to shut away the ones I want to feel – like love and happiness, like contentment and inner peace. I don’t even realize that I’m wandering around in a numbed and foggy state, emotionally flat and unresponsive. I don’t contact the friends I miss, I don’t make an effort to enjoy those who are nearby. Keeping myself closed off from my emotions effectively renders the work of moving, the effort required to change my life, meaningless.

I share this for several reasons.

First, I know I am not alone in finding ways to numb myself in order to keep my emotions at bay when they threaten to overwhelm me. Whether it is with substances (alcohol, drugs, peanut M&Ms), with isolation, by binge-watching “Full House” episodes or by obsessively taking Facebook quizzes, the end result is the same – unfulfilled days leading to an empty life. I am not alone in needing reminders to cut that crap out.

Second, it is a cliché to say that awareness is the first step toward change. But it is also true. I have to realize that I’m indulging in a coping mechanism that is past its usefulness – I’m beyond the frenetic phase of my move and into the long, slow part of the transition. I have both the time and leisure to attend to my emotional life again – it will actually make the transition more successful if I open my heart and see what’s going on in there! If what I’m saying rings true for you, isn’t it time to stop protecting yourself and start risking emotion again? Me too.

Third, I need my life to be about something. Something bigger than myself. In large part, that is what this transition and new job are all about. The effort and energy required to avoid emotional engagement prevent that by keeping my attention unfocused and dis-engaged. So I ask myself, do I really care if my taste in classical music is hipster or not? Is that pistachio muffin really worth trading my ability to laugh or to cry? Tomorrow, next week or next year, will I look back at this time and be proud of what I’ve accomplished? Will being able to recite Uncle Jessie’s lines from memory be a big enough contribution to this world? Would it be, is it, enough for you?

If your answer is no, then let’s agree to help each other out. We won’t intentionally numb ourselves with whatever our “numbing agent of choice” might be – and to keep ourselves honest, we’ll tell someone we trust what that is. We’ll treat each and every fledgeling emotion as valid and nurture it, in ourselves and in others. We won’t judge emotions as good or bad – we’ll just let them speak for themselves. And finally, let’s not judge others for being emotional beings, even when they/we are sloppy-emotional. It’s immensely human of us.

Eventually, we may grow to not only feel but to appreciate every emotion for the richness it adds to our understanding and experience. And when that happens, like good parents, let’s just keep it to ourselves that happiness is our favorite!

I Disagree. And that’s ok…

A paraphrased conversation from a spring meeting of the Rider Writer’s Group:

A: (reading from her essay) “If you believe (this), you’re wrong…”

(She continued until she had read the entire essay. Several comments were then made in response to the essay)

Me: I admire how you point-blank called the reader out – “You’re wrong!” I almost never say anything that direct, even if I feel really strongly about it.

P: Why not?!

Me: I’m not sure. I don’t want to create bad feelings or alienate people. But I also don’t want to get into a verbal war over comments on my blog. (I then gave an example of an unpublished piece that takes a stand on a polarizing topic.)

M: Well, I think you should go for it. You can always turn comments off if it gets too bad.

P: Yeah! Just go for it!

A: Besides, it’s okay for people to disagree.

Wait! What?! It’s okay for people to disagree? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me this?

Now, I’m not talking about conversational debate. I grew up surrounded by and participating in family debates (mostly over morning coffee) about everything from the relative merits of a particular restaurant, to politics and educational policy, to “what is art?” While some of these topics may have been things that we cared about, they weren’t actually very personal. In this kind of debate, my faith, energy, and soul aren’t really invested. Instead, the verbosity is more about having a wide-ranging conversation, taking a position for the fun of having to defend it or capitulate to a better-articulated argument.

Real, substantive, disagreement is much more difficult to navigate. First, for many of us, disagreement equals conflict and, therefore, must be avoided at all costs. More than that, though, we avoid deep disagreement because it makes us feel vulnerable. When I clearly state what I believe from the core of who I am, I risk rejection. Sometimes, in the heat of argument, that rejection feels like annihilation.

The paradox inherent in this dilemma is clearly stated by Parker Palmer:

“Instead of telling our valuable stories, we seek safety in abstractions, speaking to each other about our opinions, ideas, and beliefs rather than about our lives. Academic culture blesses this practice by insisting that the more abstract our speech, the more likely we are to touch the universal truths that unite us. But what happens is exactly the reverse: as our discourse becomes more abstract, the less connected we feel. There is less sense of community among intellectuals than in the most ‘primitive’ society of storytellers.” Parker Palmer

In today’s world, as we navigate the major issues of our time: climate change, economic disparity, discrimination and inequality, US women’s domination of world soccer (ok, just checking that you’re paying attention) it is more vital than ever that we practice the moral courage of speaking truth. This doesn’t only mean sharing divergent opinions, it means learning to confront our own fear of vulnerability to say what is in our hearts – regardless of whether others will agree. We can’t let fear of conflict prevent us from talking about the very real decisions with which we are faced as a community.

And speaking of community: until we find a way to include disparate voices in one conversation, we will never create true community. Instead, we will continue to create closed circles of like-minded individuals who agree with each other in ever louder voices in an attempt to drown-out the voices of the closed-circle groups living near us.

I could go on haranguing on this topic in an abstract way, but then I’m guilty of the very thing I’m arguing against. So how am I practicing the moral courage of truth in my own life? Well, in some ways I’m not. For example, I haven’t published that blog piece on a polarizing topic I spoke of with my writer’s group. In other ways, I’m working on it. First, I’m listening to myself speak – noting when I take refuge in abstractions or, worse, untruths. This is a very humbling thing to do, as I discover just how often I slide over or glide around inconvenient or uncomfortable truths. Second, I’m evaluating situations and people in which and with whom it is less daunting to speak my truth. As in so many things that take courage in life, starting with lesser risks builds strength for greater risk-taking. Third, I’m evaluating those areas that need my voice and practicing speaking my truth there, even if I know others will disagree. Even if I know that speaking will reveal fundamentally divergent views between myself and people I love or respect. Because my friend and fellow writer A. is correct: it’s ok for people to disagree.

Not only is it ok, it is actually possible to continue to love and respect those with whom we disagree. In fact, one could argue that true love and respect are only possible between those who have learned to speak divergent truths AND continue in relationship with one another. When one of my loved ones came out as lesbian to a family member, she indicated her fear that it might harm the relationship. The reply she received was, “Maybe now we can really have a relationship.” Because truth is essential to creating “right relationship”, whether between individuals or within communities. In fact, real community only thrives in environments that learn to hold a diversity of views without erupting into discord and interpersonal violence. I know no other way to create this than one person, one courageous truth, one relationship at a time.


Circles and Spirals

“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”

                                                                          –Wendell Berry



In years past when I trained Resident Assistants in preparation for the arrival of first year students in the fall, I would ask them to create a visual model of a welcoming, inclusive community. Invariably, the group would form a circle, holding hands with one another. It provided a wonderful opportunity for discussion, as the model they’d just created was, in fact, closed to new people. The group discussion that followed was always rich and insightful, culminating in some very creative group formations representing community.

In many ways, the image of a closed circle has never really appealed to me as a metaphor. If some circular pattern or concept was needed, I’ve always preferred a spiral because it speaks of ongoing movement, of a future; it can spin upward to represent growth or downward to represent depth. A spiral allows for the concept of coming full circle, without that being an end-point. Yep, I’m all about the spiral.

Except that this week my life has been all about the circle.

Everyone has issues with people in their lives that, for one reason or another, just don’t go well. Contact with that person(s) ends, but messily, with unresolved turmoil or emotion. Moving back to a community in which I lived and interacted for seventeen years meant that I was returning to the vicinity of several such situations and what I perceived as “problematic people” from my past.

I didn’t intend to actively avoid these individuals, but I suspect I’m not that different from others in that I (passively) hoped to not run into them. I’m not proud of that cowardly impulse, but I think it’s a normal, human one. Most of us are cowards when it comes to conflict and discomfort in social interactions. However, as with so many things associated with moving and my new position, it appears that there is a plan other than my own at work in my life. This became apparent as one after another of my so-called “problematic people” walked through the door this week.

What I discovered through these encounters is invaluable. First, I learned that allowing myself to think of individuals as problems stripped them of their humanity. Instead, I had come to see them as one might view characters in an uncomfortable drama – broadly drawn to represent one value, rather than as multi-dimensional beings. Second, casting them in the drama which was held over week-after-week inside my own head meant that neither they nor I were allowed to grow beyond the initial messy turmoil (whatever that was). Third, dramas feed on emotional avoidance – so that the longer these situations remained unresolved, the larger they grew in my reckoning. Over time, interpersonal icky-ness came to be equated in my thinking with insurmountable impediments to forgiveness and healing.

Of course, that was not true. In each case, our encounters were initially awkward – I hadn’t expected them and they had not been prepared for me. But after the first few moments, each of these people I had previously defined as “problems” proved to be generous, good-humored, open, receptive. And I like to think that I mirrored those qualities. By the time we parted company, I no longer feared seeing them again. More important, the arc of negative energy associated with each person was finally closed. Brought full circle.

So this week I’m learning to appreciate the closed circumference of the circle. It doesn’t mean I am done with these individuals – who knows whether we will cross paths again or play a part in one another’s lives at some future point. Completing the circle doesn’t close off the person, it puts a stop to the energy drain of the unresolved drama. It can, in fact, make further connection, even some spiraling together, possible.

Which brings me back to idea that there is a plan other than my own visibly at work in my life. Had I made a plan for this, I certainly wouldn’t have placed several such encounters in close proximity, time-wise. I’d have decided each needed both space and careful engineering. Most likely, I’d have obsessed to the point where authentic connection or response wasn’t possible due to the anxiety and stage-fright I’d have felt. But here’s the thing: these unclosed circles were holding me back from doing the work I feel called to do. They weighed on my confidence, authenticity, full engagement in the present. Now I can leave them where they belong – in the past.

And my “problem people”? They can, once again, be fully human as opposed to one-dimensional characters in my mental melodrama. Their names are off my marquee. I can get back to work, less burdened and distracted, on my spirals.

And for that I am truly, profoundly grateful to The Planner.