The Caterpillar and the Phoenix

I live in a nest woven out of all the twigs and pieces of string–the maxims and identifications–that I have picked up over a lifetime. And when it was hailing half-inch hail stones two nights ago I was grateful to have that nest with its solid roof over my head.

Following up on this image–that we all need a nest in which to feel grounded and at home–I looked up a Sufi story (“The Bird and the Egg”) which describes the plight of a fledgling of a species that can fly but who has somehow ended up in the nest of a family of birds who cannot. We learn that it is no simple task for him to learn to fly when his parents, whom he admires for all they have already taught him, are unable to teach him to do what they themselves cannot do.

Nests are interesting places. Most of us aspire to have a place where we feel nurtured, comfortable and at home. We wrap ourselves in this fabric we call home, and over a lifetime—weaving with great determination, like a hyperactive spider—we maintain a familiar ‘reality’ in which we have little choice but to believe. But along the way we discover that the familiar tends to confine us: as if we were wearing a heavy vest, or perhaps a tight sweater, wrapped so tightly that if we had wings on our back we might not even be aware of their existence.

But the oration I am tempted to give about freedom, flight, and the daring do needed to leap from our nests into the open sky, is silenced when I think of the example of Temple Grandin:

Whereas many of us can feel restored by a hug from another human being, her autism makes that kind of direct contact impossible to tolerate. In response to this isolation from the ordinary human realm—at a time when she was already a university professor–she made herself a mechanical cocoon into which she could crawl at the end of a traumatic day.

So does that mean that she is disqualified from following the path of a caterpillar in which the capacity to launch forth as a butterfly is inherent? The French phrase (“reculler pour mieux sauter”: stepping back in order to leap forward) gives some insight into how her transformation may be an even more impressive achievement.

By fathoming the difficulties of her own condition, she has been able to recognize and intervene on behalf of the fellow creatures whose suffering our society has ignored for eons. Understanding, in the depths of her own being, the terror experienced by animals being led to slaughter–who see and hear the panic being experienced by others a few yards ahead—she redesigned the chutes so that they now confine the animals on all sides, up until the last moment.

Most of us are not autistic–although something in our world is causing more and more to be born so.

I expect that most of us are familiar with how the trials of daily life can corral us into a corner, in which empathy for the plights of others is one of the first casualties. Is it possible that Temple Grandin’s example can inspire us to find a new way—through understanding the roots of our own isolation–to reach out and embrace the bewildered pain of others.

For the past decade I have sat on the board of a school (Pathways Academy) that provides a comforting social and learning environment for kids whose unique perspectives and extra needs are not always well addressed by the public educational system. If you know anyone who could use a home away from home, please check it out:

Leave a Reply