the value of struggle and the damn caterpillar

by michelle on October 11, 2011

Recently my stepdaughter decided to quit her second year of crew. She said she wants to focus on her grades and not be away from home so much.

Here’s the real deal: it’s hard.

Crew is kick ass. The workouts are boot camp-intensity, the hours are long, it’s cold and then hot and then cold out on the water. She’d rather not work that hard.

This is probably the typical attitude of a 15 year old, but unfortunately some of us don’t grow out of it.

There is immense value in struggle.

There’s a richness and depth that can come only from really feeling grief, fear, pain. From doing The Thing. From rubbing right up against what is so challenging it feels like it will break you.

Yes, I’m going to use the caterpillar/cocoon metaphor.

The hairy caterpillar builds a womb for itself and inside undergoes a most amazing transformation. It’s a miracle, really.

When it can no longer be contained in that protective covering it begins to break free.

Here’s the crazy part — if you helped the butterfly out of the cocoon it would not be able to survive in the world. In the process of breaking free, it builds the strength it will need to fly. The butterfly needs the struggle.

This is not to say struggle doesn’t suck.

The butterfly metaphor is all fine and good, but when you’re in it, struggle sucks. Challenge, pain, fear, feeling lost, not knowing is really really hard.

But if we don’t stay with it, if we don’t break free of that outgrown world, we will never become the butterfly.

Changing is scary.

Not that anything is wrong with you now; not that you need to be different to be amazing or brilliant or whole. That’s not what we’re talking about.

We’re talking about the work of an evolving soul. Taking the necessary (and often painful) step toward becoming more of who you are.

Crew might not be soul-evolving, but it could be good practice. And we need all the practice we can get.


We also need Rumi.

From The Soul of Rumi, a poem titled Work in the Invisible.

The prophets have wondered to themselves, “How long
should we keep pounding

this cold iron? How long do we have to whisper into an
empty cage?” Every motion

of created beings comes from the creator. The first soul
pushes, and your second

soul responds, beginning, so don’t stay timid. Load the ship
and set out. No one knows

for certain whether the vessel will sink or reach the harbour.
Cautious people say, “I’ll

do nothing until I can be sure.” Merchants know better.
If you do nothing, you lose.

Don’t be one of those merchants who won’t risk the ocean!
This is much more important

than losing or making money. This is your connection to God!
You must set fire to have

light. Trust means you’re ready to risk what you currently
have. Think of your fear and

hope about your livelihood. They make you go to work
diligently everyday. Now

consider what the prophets have done. Abraham wore fire
for an anklet. Moses spoke

to the sea. David molded iron, Solomon rode the wind.
Work in the invisible world

at least as hard as you do in the visible. Be companions
with the prophets even though

no one here will know that you are, not even the helpers of
the qutb, the abdals. You

can’t imagine what profit will come! When one of those
generous ones invites you

into his fire, go quickly! Don’t say, “But will it burn
me? Will it hurt?”


photo credit

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Elizabeth October 11, 2011 at 10:34 pm

I was in a rowing club for a while when I was in Sac. The one in West Sac. I had to quit because the early morning commute to/from Folsom was killing me. But I miss it. Even the hardness of it. It was one of those things where I could just feel the strength inherent in the practice and I loved who I was in it. Sculling for fun on Lake Natoma, which was what I did after I left that club, was never the same.

But you’re right .. it is good practice. Maybe there was a reason I was so drawn to the idea of it and then stumbled upon it.

Love Rumi too. Always.


michelle October 18, 2011 at 6:36 pm

you were?? that’s the one she was in. it is such hard work (and we live close) – can’t imagine driving to folsom. i forgot that you lived here!! xo


Madeleine October 12, 2011 at 9:05 am

Oh, bummer. I was so psyched when we went from cheerleading to crew. But I guess that’s the problem – there’s no “we” here, just her. And I couldn’t possibly begin to guess what she needs in the moment. Maybe she just needs the power to quit, to assert sovereignty over something?


michelle October 18, 2011 at 6:37 pm

mmm, yes, perhaps.


Kim October 12, 2011 at 6:20 pm

“The hairy caterpillar builds a womb for itself and inside undergoes a most amazing transformation. It’s a miracle, really.

When it can no longer be contained in that protective covering it begins to break free.”

It really is a miracle. Thanks for keeping it so real.


michelle October 18, 2011 at 6:37 pm

keeping it SO real, girl.


Meredith October 14, 2011 at 1:50 pm

“But if we don’t stay with it, if we don’t break free of that outgrown world, we will never become the butterfly.”

Beautiful sentence. I love it… Definitely needed to hear something like that right now.


michelle October 18, 2011 at 6:37 pm

thanks, meredith. i need to hear it too :)


Leslie McFadden October 27, 2011 at 12:50 am

I am spending time tonight on your wonderful new blog and this post caught my eye. Yours truly did crew for about 9 months probably 6 years ago out in West Sac through River City Rowing Club. You know I am not a morning person, so that was one big challenge. But the real reason I stopped was that it was not FUN anymore. PLUS I had no affinity with the people I was rowing with at the crack of dawn and that did not help. So I put that out to you. Did it stop being fun for her? When both my daughters wanted to stop piano and soccer, I balked. “Commitments have to be honored!” “You can’t just give up because it’s hard work!” Finally I saw that they weren’t having any fun–there was no joy. Neither of them play piano now (oh well!) but they both play soccer for fun….and they both graduated from college. We can talk more about this in person if you would like. You may have moved beyond it now :) Leslie


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