Earlier this year while having a mini-meltdown about my job, the phrase “Follow the butterfly” popped into my head. It’s not the first time that a random snippet just appeared that, in theory, I could apply to my present situation like some sort of fortune cookie from my subconscious. But, unlike those other times, I had no idea what this meant. It was not a common cliché or a saying that had any particular relevance to me. Was I supposed to look for a job that had a butterfly in the logo? Be prepared for a transformation or metamorphosis of some type? Or just be hyperaware of butterflies for the foreseeable future?
The latter was certainly the case. A few weeks after this, I came across the following quote in Barbara Winter’s Making a Living Without a Job, in a chapter entitled “Finding Your Lost Passion”:
There is at bottom only one problem in the world and this is its name. How does one break through? How does one get into the open? How does one burst the cocoon and become a butterfly? (Thomas Mann)
“Aha!” I thought. “’Follow the butterfly’ means I should follow my passions!” Which, admittedly, I was already doing with a range of side projects. But then a related Guardian Masterclass came up, with Barbara Mariposa as a speaker. Mariposa is Spanish for butterfly, therefore I should go on this
course! Which I did and it was interesting and I found Dr. B an inspiring speaker, but it didn’t lead to any new insights.
Then, a few months later, it was spring and the phrase had faded to an echo: something that I occasionally puzzled over, but which was no longer at the front of my mind. And around this time, a butterfly, a real one, was flitting from flower to flower in the garden. I grabbed my camera and stalked it like a lepidopteran paparazzo. While their bright colours make butterflies wonderful photographic subjects from an aesthetic perspective, they are difficult to track: you never know which direction they may go off in, or how long they may spend at any given flower.
It was only later, when looking through the pictures, that the phrase returned to me. This time it made perfect sense: Butterflies do not fly in a straight line. Their path from flower to flower is not linear or in any way predictable. Yet they get exactly what they need from each waypoint along their journey before moving on.
However, it often feels like we are on a specific path that must unfold in a particular way: school, university, career. And that career itself must follow the trajectory of each new position building upon the previous: more money, more responsibility, more status. All encompassed within a single straight line.
Yet doesn’t this seem confining? According to this common script, we can only move in one direction. There is no room for chasing after passions, or veering to a new interest, or recognising that the subject that caught our fancy when we were 18 may not fill us with the same joy two decades later.
The flight of a butterfly is often equated with flightiness and indecision, of being unable to choose. Yet in reality, it offers the complete freedom of choice, of being able to follow the path that most appeals to us, for however long or brief we desire. Each stop along the way may offer something different to sustain us. Provided that we get what we need as we go along this varied route, what is wrong with casting aside the predetermined path?