Musings on the Butterfly Metaphor
Some thoughts on the "story" of metamorphosis as represented by the way in which a caterpillar "turns into" a butterfly. [October, 2016]
Basics on the butterfly metaphor can be found on the Great Transition Stories website and also in the video here:
- We're at the stage in The Great Turning where "imaginal cells" & cell clusters are popping up all over the caterpillar of "Business as Usual," but BAU is still very much alive & its immune system is attacking the "invaders"
- We're still small clusters that do not yet resemble a butterfly or perhaps even a major organ of one. We don't yet know how to become a butterfly, or what part we or our organizations might play in that conscious evolution. Are we trying to become a wing? A heart? Do we know what a wing or a heart is in this emerging context, let alone how we might help build one? Do we know what kind of a "butterfly" we need to become, or what a "butterfly " is?
- We're afraid that we might not get to become a butterfly even if we can figure out how one might do so.
Given the uncertainty inherent in the early stages of metamorphosis, the drive for urgency/impact that we feel can be a set-up for angst, frustration, resignation and cynicism. In such a context, it's hard to decide what feels right, important and worthy of our best efforts.
- The metaphor suggests that our job is to survive and grow and be more resilient as clusters, and to connect to other clusters, without necessarily knowing what it is that our ultimate function/purpose might be.
- If the purpose of the actions we take is to develop resilience and capacity in the infrastructure, that's different than trying to become the equivalent of a "wing" or a "lung" that is part of a fully formed and functioning new paradigm.
- Perhaps it is best for now to play at learning, practicing and relaxing into the idea that any outcome that feels good can serve as a means for growth, more resilience and more diverse and freely flowing relationships. We don't have to be attached to saving the world "right now."
- Furthermore, if we assume that something huge may happen soon--a breakdown or an emergence of something new-- we can anticipate that clusters and networks of clusters that exist and are coherent at that time will have an opportunity to step in and act powerfully.
- We need to be ready. In the chaos of that moment of disruption, it may be very hard to build things quickly—especially new trusted relationships and ways of working together-- from scratch.
I met with someone the other day who is fairly new to the game of transformation and process work, and he mentioned the movie The Sting when I told him about this idea. Redford and Newman's characters had a lifetime of experience and connections to draw upon. When a Big Mark suddenly appeared, they knew exactly what to do and who to call on to put their scheme into action. Can we play a similar game even as we dance with "pure emergence?!"
So... what kinds of action might we collaborate on now that would also build the sorts of capacities we could use if a major window of emergent opportunity suddenly opens? It seems to me that we are looking for projects that are easy targets for action in this moment and also serve to build capacity in some key ways that are distinct from "having the largest possible impact" in the context of current system conditions.
Creating relationships and trust between organizations, networks and communities seems like the core outcome that drives everything else (i.e. "connect the system to more of itself"). And we might also look for some more "tangible" deliverables as well. Here are some additional thoughts on specific capacities that might be good places to focus our strategic energies now:
- Creating the capacity to direct large amounts of money into a diverse ecosystem of organizations, projects etc. Money suddenly wants to flow when there is disruption and or new opportunity, but it needs help. When Occupy emerged, for example, many large donors wanted to offer financial support, and some did so, but the trust and infrastructure wasn't there to allow it to happen at the scale that it might have.
- Note: this has a nice resonance with the butterfly metaphor, as the money of the old economy, when it is suddenly directed in service to transformation, can be seen as the "nutritive soup," formed from the dissolving caterpillar body, that nourishes the butterfly's imaginal cells.
- Creating the capacity to help shift to a New Economy quickly and at scale if the old one suddenly breaks down (a la Greece).
- Creating the capacity to productively channel mass outrage.
- Creating the capacity to convene key leaders under conditions that allow them to make decisions together.
Here's a corollary notion: resilience means something very different when the path to survival is not only to ride the wave of transformation, but also to help generate it. It's more about preparing to help drive the system into a new steady state than it is about "surviving" as current support structures collapse.