The Tao of Butterflies

4961646315_d982efb1a4_oLast week, I was listening to an old Radiolab podcast called “The Black Box.” The episode centered on mysterious processes: What happens under anesthesia, for instance? How does a magic trick work? And last of all, what happens in the chrysalis, to turn a caterpillar into a butterfly?

That last one caught my attention. Like the radio hosts, if I thought about it at all I assumed that the caterpillar simply sprouted wings and other butterfly miscellany in the chrysalis. Not true. It turns out that the caterpillar literally dissolves into itself, turning into a yellowish primordial goo, before re-forming as a butterfly.

Even more interesting, the butterfly is nonetheless the same creature as the original caterpillar, with the same memory and soul (as much soul as an insect can have, anyway). Scientists have measured the caterpillar’s sense of smell and memory before and after the creature enters the pupa, and have discovered continuity. The creature which goes into the pupa is the same that emerges. It is alive again, though it dies.

This takes on particular significance if you realize that, as the hosts mentioned in the episode, the medieval world saw the butterfly as a sign of resurrection: that it enters the pupa and then (to all appearances) dies is a reminder that we too, though we die, will live again. As the Radiolab hosts pointed out, if the butterfly is the same as the caterpillar who enters the pupa, then those of us who believe in eternal life can take heart that when we are resurrected, we will be ourselves: perfected, yes, but substantially the same.

But there is a richer truth here. Towards the end of the episode, one of the hosts pointed out that if the butterfly is the same as the caterpillar which enters the pupa, the process works in reverse, too: The caterpillar carries within it the future butterfly.

Though the radio hosts, working on a secular science-and-technology show, did not make this point, there is a rich spiritual meaning here: If when we are resurrected we are nonetheless ourselves, then in our present physical self we hold that which will eventually become a spiritual body (I Corinthians 15.44). Within us now we each carry our immortal selves. It’s not simply that we will one day be transformed into an everlasting being; we are already that being, though we carry that part of our being around in a physical body for now, as the caterpillar carries around within it the butterfly.

Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t it cool?

To me, this speaks of the hope of everlasting life with God. Since each of us always carries around the seed of our immortal self, we (subconsciously) revolt against the idea that we have an end at death; our very being cries out against it. Lewis writes that the fact we have “desires which nothing in this world can satisfy” proves “we were made for another world,” but the truth is sharper still: the fact that we always feel ourselves shaped for another world proves we will one day inhabit it.

It also speaks of the hope of sanctification. It is so easy to get bogged down and discouraged with sin. Like Paul, I find myself doing exactly the things I don’t want to do. But given that I am already the one who will be transformed into an immortal, godly self, then by healthful spiritual habits such as prayer I can (and this is not a very precise way to put it) draw that self out. If I were outside, and moved into the sun, my shadow would become stronger; just so, since I carry around my immortal self, when I through habits such as prayer move into the light of Christ, the presence of immortality within me becomes stronger. I can taste the joys of eternal life through Christ.

And last of all, it speaks of the value of human beings. I am easily frustrated with people, and impressed with those who are able to see Christ even in people who are dirty or annoying. That guy who backed into my brand-new car in a hotel parking lot last weekend? It was hard to see God’s hand in creating him, I was so unhappy with him. But if each of us carries around an immortal soul, then each of us (no matter how annoying) is of inestimable value. We must always look at the caterpillar, and see through it to the butterfly.



Pet Peeves


As your teacher, I like to think of myself just a little bit like your mom.

I care for you, but I also have high expectations for you. Your mom has expectations that you will grow into a mature, responsible adult; I have expectations that you will develop into an articulate writer. (I also hope that you’ll become a responsible adult. But helping you get there is above my pay grade.)

And when you make silly mistakes that show you’re a long ways from becoming a responsible adult, like tracking mud through the house or eating half a pint of ice cream instead of a sandwich for supper, your mom gets annoyed. You tracking mud through the house is what we’d call her pet peeve.

Teachers are like moms. We have pet peeves. Mine are silly writing mistakes.

These are not mistakes which actually affect your grade. Papers which earn As have made all of these mistakes, though not usually all at the same time.

But these mistakes still make your paper a little silly. And they’re silly mistakes, not too hard to avoid. So I list them here, for your entertainment and edification.

8. Homophones. These are words that look the same but are spelled differently, and have different meanings. Their, they’re, and there is a classic example. And I get that these are hard. After all, since the words sound exactly alike, if you’re not a great speller, it can be tricky to keep track of which spelling is which.

But your confusing the words is hilarious. You often confuse “click” (a sharp, snapping noise) for “clique” (an exclusive group), and “roll” (a delicious bread product) for “role” (a performance, or expectations about behaviour). That confusion results in sentences like this (and yes, I have seen sentences like this in actual papers): “Clicks in high school are a big problem.” or “Gender rolls are an important part of a society’s culture.”

Please doublecheck your spellings, and pass the gender rolls.

7. Referring to writers by their first names. Maybe I’m just old-school, but using someone’s first name means you’re pretty close to them. I’m cool with you using my first name, but that’s because I hope you’re comfortable with me as a person. But you don’t call our school president “Phil”. You don’t call your teacher ed prof “Susie” or  your business prof “Kim.” So it’s weird to suddenly refer to the sources in your paper “John” and “Kara”. Unless you’re secretly hanging out with these scientists, professional, and journalists who’ve written your papers in your free time on the weekends, use their last names.

6. Using Calibri font. Okay, this is not altogether your fault. Calibri font is the default in Word. Why it is the default font is beyond me. It is hands down the ugliest font I have ever seen. Papers are traditionally written in Times New Roman; papers written in Perpetua or Georgia are correlated with higher grades. But really, anything but Calibri is fine. Or Wingdings. Please don’t start using Wingdings.

5. Using more than one font. Frequently, I see the whole paper turned in in a gorgeous Times New Roman font. Except the heading: the heading is still in Calibri. This is the English Composition equivalent of heading out the door with a tennis shoe on one foot and a nice loafer on the other: not a disaster per se, but still a ridiculous fashion choice. When you change your font to Times New Roman, be sure you change the whole paper to Times New Roman.

4. Misspelling obvious words. My name is clearly written in your syllabus, and it’s not “Vanburgun.” If you don’t know how to spell my name, just admit it. Check the syllabus. Not knowing doesn’t make your paper look silly. Not doublechecking your work does.

I get my name is really hard to spell, though. So what drives me even more nuts is when your paper misspells easy, everyday words: a recent paper wrote “prison”, “prision”. When you make that kind of mistake, my psychic powers tell me that you didn’t run Spellcheck. Not running Spellcheck is like not looking at yourself in the mirror before you go on a hot date. You might miss a huge zit, and even if you hit it off with your date, all night long she’ll be looking at that zit.

3. Folding the lefthand corner of a paper together. I get it, you forgot to paperclip or staple the pages together. That’s okay, we all forget things. But go to the library, literally a hundred feet from our classroom, and staple your pages together. For the love of all that’s holy, don’t try to hold the paper together by folding the pages over each other. This never actually works. The pages fall apart anyway, and then they never lie flat again. I go to grade them, and they keep popping up off the desk or book. Writing notes on your paper is like trying to write notes on a pop-up book.

2. Putting an article title in quote marks. Like with fonts, this is not your fault. I’ve tried for a long time to come up an easy way to help you remember that quote marks are for article titles; italics, for book and magazine titles. But I haven’t come up with anything that’s not cheesy and more difficult to remember than the actual rule. So just memorize it: When you refer to an article title or a poem title, use quote marks. Italics are for long works: books, magazines, and newspapers. If you start using italics for all the articles you quote in your paper, you’re telling your reader you’ve read a heckuva lot of books in researching this three-page paper.

And my top pet peeve . . . 

1. Lowercasing the word “Bible”. This is especially frustrating when I catch this error in Christian students’ papers, who should know better. Did you not grow up seeing that word written in church bulletins and Sunday school material? And was it ever, ever lowercased? No. So why would you possibly lower case it now, when you’ve never seen that done? That’s like suddenly wearing socks on your ears, even though all your life you’ve seen people putting them on their feet.

But honestly, lowercasing “Bible” doesn’t even make sense from a secular standpoint. The word Koran is capitalized. So is Bhagavad Gita. The Bible is the religious book for Christianity; thus, like the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita, it gets capitalized.

And in conclusion:

Look, when I read your papers, I’m way more interested in whether you have good ideas and whether you express those ideas clearly and in detail than whether or not you capitalize the word “Bible”. But you making some of the changes I’ve described on this page will help your paper look more mature, more professional.

And who doesn’t want to look more mature?

You’ll make your mom, and your teacher, proud.

A Defense of Quitting

bfb57b9c867ae8548c4c515839068210I had to throw away a pot of tomato soup I was making today.

I’d browned some bacon as the base of the soup, and as the  bacon cooked, I noticed it developing flat grey spots, as if it had gone bad. When the bacon came out of the pan, I tasted it (because fresh bacon, duh!) and discovered that it just tasted old. Stale. Not like bacon.

By that point, I had my soup pot nicely filled with an onion, three tomatoes, a cup of tomato sauce, and half a box of broth. The whole thing was simmering away nicely, in the juices and oils from the cooked bacon. It looked delicious, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about cooking, it’s that you don’t take chances with meat. So I moved the whole pot to the back of the stove and had leftovers for lunch instead. When the soup is cool, I’ll pour it down the drain.

Tomato soup is not the only thing I’ve thrown away recently. A few weeks ago, I put aside Mary Doria Russell’s A Thread of Grace, a novel about Jewish refugees in Italy, during World War II. I really wanted to like the book, but it had no plot and its characters blurred together. I returned it to the library.

I feel a little guilty about both these decisions. I am not a rich woman, and I have strong convictions that I should eat the food that is already in my house, rather than buy new food. So throwing food away is hard for me.

I am also an English teacher and feel strongly that tackling books which are, at first blush, boring is good for me. After all, I really shouldn’t subsist on an intellectual diet of science fiction and P.D. James novels. So not finishing a book is hard for me, too.

Quitting anything is, I think, frowned upon in our culture. And correctly so: Patience and perseverance are fruits of the Spirit; we believers are called to endure hard things, in order to grow closer to Christ.

But that doesn’t mean quitting is always wrong.

I have been reading Wendell Berry lately, and he urges readers to consider the consequences of their actions, to operate in the real world and not in the ideal one. This is a more radical idea than it seems. Our culture, obsessed with freedom, is perpetually trying to divorce human actions from their natural consequences. The chief example is of course our culture’s attitude towards sex; as Berry points out, in the freewheeling sexual activity that characterizes our culture “the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of ‘freeing’ natural pleasure from natural consequence”. But this is only one example of how we insist on “ignoring the consequences” (1) of our actions, and doing whatever we please.

The thing is, while patience and perseverance are virtues, we must take care not to persevere in things which harm or destroy the soul.

I wonder sometimes whether American students need to practice a little judicial quitting. They take on ten or twenty or thirty hours of work a week, and a full class load, and a full social life, and then they are astonished when their schoolwork or health suffers.

I don’t want to judge my students. After all, many of them have to work in order to pay for school. But the fact remains that their decision to do so has consequences for the quality of their schoolwork, their family life, or their mental and physical health.

Likewise in my own life: There are places I need to stop ignoring the natural consequences of my actions, and practice a little judicial quitting. I like ending a stressful day by vegging on the Internet, but the truth is, this habit cuts into time that I could be spending reading. I like to worry (as the EMH said in Star Trek: Voyager, “It makes me feel better!”) but the fact remains that the natural consequence of worrying is spiritual and mental stress. Such are the things that I need to quit.

Quitting is not easy. And it is not enough to just quit; we must replace the thing we quit with something better, something with wholesome consequences. I put aside A Thread of Grace, and I picked up Laurusa Russian novel which promises to challenge my secular modernist tendencies.

But still, the first step is to quit.

(1) From “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” in What Are People For?