The butterfly on the struggle bus

Published 1:17 pm Monday, August 13, 2018

“Adding wings to caterpillars does not create butterflies, it creates awkward and dysfunctional caterpillars. Butterflies are created through transformation.”

— Stephanie Marshall

When I was a little girl, I was wont to climb up in a tree and while away an afternoon, a PB&J in one hand and a Laura Ingalls Wilder book in the other.

Erin Smith

Email newsletter signup

One day, while sitting in my favorite tree, I noticed a cocoon hanging from a leaf. Upon closer inspection, I could see it was shaking a bit and was amazed when a small opening appeared.

Now, I considered myself a sort-of butterfly expert at this point because my second-grade teacher had ordered a butterfly kit for our classroom that year. She arrived one morning with a soft net cage, 20 live caterpillars and caterpillar food.

We learned the scientific term was not caterpillar but larva. The students took turns setting out tiny pellets for the caterpillars each afternoon.

One by one, the caterpillars grew fat. They each chose a twig, crawled up and started spinning a silky cocoon around their plump little bodies.

We learned caterpillars actually digest themselves inside, creating a caterpillar soup full of imaginal cells.

These imaginal cells lie dormant in the larva but are activated in the cocoon stage. They divide and grow, creating the metamorphosis that allows the caterpillar to emerge a butterfly.

So I knew the shaking meant the butterfly was ready to fly away. I watched, fascinated, as the butterfly forced its way through the tiny opening.

Armed with just enough information to be dangerous, I thought I would help the process along. I used my fingernails and opened the cocoon completely.

The butterfly popped out on the limb with small, wet wings, then stumbled about on the branch. I kept watch for a while, but to my great disappointment, it never flew away.

I felt ashamed, not certain what had happened but knowing in my heart I had somehow caused that lovely butterfly harm.

I know now butterflies must struggle through the tiny opening in the cocoon as a way to squeeze the extra fluid from their newly-formed wings to fly properly.

I had attempted to shortcut the process, and that’s not the way nature is designed.

The struggle is a necessary part of real change.

I thought about this recently after watching my daughter struggle with some anxiety. Every cell of my being wanted to jump in and fix it, make it better. Let’s meditate! Let’s journal! Let’s stretch our legs up the wall!

But it isn’t really my job to fix it.

Allowing the process to unfold in its own time helps cultivate my faith and her strength. We each have to face our personal struggles if we are to grow our own wings.

Swooping in will only handicap her emotionally, intellectually and socially.

Parents have to think long-term instead of short-term. If I continue to fix my daughter’s problems in the short-term, then she won’t have the emotional fortitude to meet adversity in the long-term.

And life guarantees us hardship. Struggle is a given, but suffering is optional.

All things are difficult before they are easy. So how do we survive the struggle without the suffering?

We need to cultivate a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe their abilities are permanent and unchangeable.

They climb aboard the “Struggle Bus” and generally just remain there because they don’t see another option and don’t trust themselves to rise to life’s challenges.

They never reach their full potential because they believe the struggle is permanent.

This is an idea of scarcity, a belief there isn’t enough for all of us. A growth mindset is the idea an ample number of skills and gifts will come to us with faith and hard work.

Children with this point of view believe their abilities can be developed and they are ever-evolving beings. This is an abundance belief, the conviction there is always more available.

As parents, we empower our kids when we allow them to struggle and fail without stepping in.

Failure refines our growth mindset, strengthens us, shapes us like imaginal cells turning caterpillar soup into a beautiful butterfly.

So I step back and allow my daughter the space she needs to figure this particular hardship out.

She probably feels alone in the dark. But that’s where you grow your wings.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness for Women” and the online host of a yoga and mindfulness channel for Eppic Films. Send her a shout out at or play along at