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The beautiful butterfly is our society’s favorite metaphor for total transformations. Nature’s ultimate metamorphosis changes from a tree clinging, 14-legged pest into the regal flying butterfly. The metaphorical story of the caterpillar to the butterfly is both inspiring and positive. What is left out of the stirring analogies, however, is that though the transformation is lovely to witness from the outside, it is gruesome and difficult deep inside the chrysalis. In a nutshell, for a caterpillar to turn into a butterfly it must digest itself with its own enzymes. Once the caterpillar reaches the larva stage, its own cells self-destruct and all tissue disintegrates – then sleeping cells grow into the body parts of a butterfly. The result of the metamorphosis is beautiful. The actual transformation, not so much.

My Personal Transformation

On a personal level, I learned the power of transformation when I endured bilateral cochlear implants nearly 10 years ago. In taking this bold step, I spent more than my fair share of time in the chrysalis. Managing my expectations and disappointments, learning to hear in a “different” way and adjusting to a new way of living gave me a greater appreciation for mankind’s capacity for transformation. The human experience is very much like the beautiful butterfly’s.

The truth about the lovely butterfly is crucial when we share the metaphor with each other. It is important for human beings to know that transformation can be powerful and beautiful, and yet, painful. There is much to be learned about the transformation and its relationship to overcoming hardships as this relationship clearly reflects two sides of the same coin:

  1. How do we transform without hardships?
  2. Are we “changed” for the better by our hardships?

What We Learn from Overcoming

The universal human condition is overcoming pain, grief, heartbreak, insecurity, the list is nearly endless. This is unavoidable. Change resulting in transformation, for better or worse, is inevitable. Positive and powerful transformation teaches four very important lessons:

1. You learn to trust yourself.

In one of Mahalia Jackson’s most powerful songs, How I Got Over, she sings mightily and clearly:

“How I got over. How did I make it over? You know my soul look back and wonder. How did I make it over?”

Who hasn’t asked themselves these questions from time to time? When we are in the chrysalis, when we are in the eye of the storm, when we are going through the fire, we don’t often know how we will “make it over.” But each time we do make it over, it stands as evidence that we will make it over the next time. Each obstacle we overcome strengthens our resilience and persistence, and in this process, we begin to trust ourselves. Overcoming a hardship teaches you to trust yourself and this is the most powerful of all lessons. You will need that trust in yourself to take the first steps in the journey of transformation.

2. You learn to trust others.

Who can get through life alone? Though I have tried (probably harder than most) to bear burdens alone, I finally concluded that humans were never meant to overcome obstacles alone. It took losing my father to understand this lesson. Losing my father taught me that we need devoted companions, friends and family members. My stubborn heart and head learned that we need people who support us in our greatest time of need. We need emotional rocks who give wise advice. It is in your lowest moments in life that you learn who your trusted friends are. It is your lowest moments in life that real love is tested and revealed. The love that stays through thick and thin. The love that loves you for who you are, not what you have. Real love never fails. In losing my father I learned how much of an emotional rock my mother is.

3. You learn about the importance of limits.

Time, resources and people are both abundant and scarce. They are abundant in the sense that we are lucky to have them, but they are scarce in the sense that they are all borrowed; they will be lost at some point. This hanging balance of abundance and scarcity is where gratitude resides. We all know that time is not promised; we know that people do not live forever; and we also know that possessions may come and go. The awareness and the disappointment of these universal truths impart a spirit of gratitude on each of us. Dealing with the loss of the most precious things in life give a sense of urgency in enjoying what we have right now, in the moment. It keeps Tolstoy’s Three Questions about the precious scarcity of life at the center of our gratitude:

  1. What is the most important time?
    Answer: The most important time is now.
  2. Who are the most important people?
    Answer: Always the one you’re with now.
  3. What is the most important thing?
    Answer: To do good for the one you are with.

Overcoming teaches us that life is an embarrassment of riches, especially when those riches are enjoyed in the moment.

4. You learn the most important lesson in the Wizard of Oz.

One of my favorite movies as a child Is the Wizard of Oz. Mistakenly, in youthful ignorance, I thought the moral of the story was, “There’s no place like home.” In my well-earned wisdom, I have since learned that the moral of the story is simply, “You always had it.” There is no yellow brick road. There is no “Golden Path.” The road to overcoming great obstacles is never found in a quick fix. The road to overcoming great obstacles will never be found outside of us. Like the Tin Man, the Lion, and the Scarecrow, what we need to overcome – compassion, bravery and wisdom – are found and developed inside of us. Like the caterpillar, overcoming teaches that we have no lack in us – what we need to overcome and transform is in the chrysalis. There are no shortcuts. No yellow brick roads. No wizards.

Triumph Takes Flight

As a leader of a school in one of the most challenging neighborhoods in Chicago, I have a front row seat in observing how overcoming transforms both children and adults. I bear witness to more trauma and pain than is humanly possible to bear sometimes. But I have learned to have faith in the chrysalis. I have learned to trust that transformation is in fact painful, but it is also powerful. Powerfully hopeful. What gives us hope? The transformation and the triumph – the triumph of the butterfly which painfully transforms from an earthbound creature with legs to one with wings.

This article is dedicated to my dear friend, B.M.C.