My heart felt mended enough to think about dating
again, and I put myself out there, but very slowly and on my own terms. What I refused to do was allow my friends to set me up on blind dates with someone they considered
the “perfect person” for me. I wasn’t the perfect person for
myself yet, and so I knew better than to jump into the dating
scene—with a young child in tow—without fully understanding what I wanted out of myself, this life, and a partner.
It was not anyone else’s job to design my path for me. I
had to create my own future and manifest my own destiny.
Destiny is choice, not chance. I knew I had to choose to show
up for myself first—even if sometimes accidentally—before
I could expect anyone to show up for me and before I could
consistently show up for others. Showing up for ourselves
requires a number of things—faith, trust, wisdom, courage.
It also requires the willingness to crawl into a black box.
I didn’t encounter the concept of a black box until 2014,
when I was listening to an episode of Radiolab on NPR. I
almost didn’t listen to the segment, thinking the show was about the airplane recording device.
I became intrigued when the show
defined this black box as “those peculiar spaces where it’s clear what’s going
in, we know what’s coming out, but
what happens in between is a mystery.”
The first example was something that is
incredibly familiar—how a caterpillar
becomes a butterfly. Almost everyone
learns about this process in preschool:
The caterpillar builds a cocoon around
itself, and when it comes out again, it’s
transformed into a butterfly. But what
happens inside the chrysalis during
this gestation period? My preschool
lessons were vague about this, and I’d
always imagined a step-by-step process: The caterpillar changed, growing
new limbs and wings, until it had a new
body. But no, this is wrong.
As Radiolab informed me, if one were to open a chrysalis
after a week, all one would find inside is goo or slime. There
would be no discernable caterpillar or anything, only a
formless, gelatinous substance. In order for a caterpillar to
become a butterfly, a caterpillar digests itself through the
release of enzymes that break down its body. This goo is a
collection of what are aptly called imaginal cells. Not unlike
stem cells, these imaginal cells contain the instructions to
create the butterfly, and eventually, the goo
reforms into wings, legs, antennae—until the
butterfly is complete.
Obviously, the caterpillar doesn’t decide to one day become a butterfly. This “desire” is
encoded into its DNA. The caterpillar probably has no idea what will happen within the
cocoon it spins. However, in my—perhaps
romantic—estimation, the caterpillar knows
one thing. It has to show up. It has to build,
trusting in whatever comes next. It must have
self-confidence, feel worthy, be fearless! It
gorges for days and days, plumping itself up in
preparation for ... its own destruction.
That evening, sitting at home after another
failed date, my wormy self realized that for a
long time I had been stewing in a black box.
We, too, have imaginal cells, and if we take
a leap of faith and allow ourselves to stew in
them, if we are brave enough to step outside of
what we know (whether what we know
is comfortable or uncomfortable), we
might find ourselves transforming. I
reflected back on the courage I had to
show up for my son and start a new life
for him (and for us) after illness and
divorce. I was committed to my own
evolution and to building structures of
support around me. But I still did not
fully believe in my ability to imagine
a different future for myself, one that
was not dictated by social norms, by
familial or cultural expectations. I
did not trust myself to make decisions of the heart, to know what was
good for me. I trusted the opinions of
others far more than my own. I was
not showing up for myself. But I was, I
realized, in the active process of self-obliteration. I was in a black box—so
to speak—without knowing what I
wanted to become or how I might
emerge, because I was too busy being
the sort of caterpillar I thought the
world wanted or expected me to be.
Caterpillars have a lot to teach us
about how we can navigate through
the transitions of life. I spent a greater
part of my life believing that transitions only have two real stages: before
change and after change. Before college, after college. Before marriage,
after marriage. Before parenthood,
after parenthood. The first stage is a
time of preparation. We soak in and
feed ourselves with the knowledge,
experiences, and tools necessary to
get to the next stage. The second stage,
after change, is when we become what
we’ve been preparing for—a butterfly.
We often expect that transition to
happen quickly, or better yet immediately, and with little further effort or
pain. The caterpillar reminds us that
there is a middle or third stage—the
ambiguous black box.
In the transitory black box stage,
we are neither who we were before nor
who we will be after. We are formless
goo, and that makes us fearful of the
outcome. What if we lose ourselves or,
even worse, morph into something or someone we don’t want or don’t
like? We forget that what we become is forged from who we are and who we
were. Our imaginal cells—the essence
of our being—are still us. Changes are
meant to be gooey; they are meant to
be ambiguous. Yet even though the
person we are doesn’t remain intact,
we do not completely disappear. Our
only job is to show up for ourselves
with complete faith—in the process, in
our evolution, in ourselves.
As I emerged from the black box of all my “after” stages—after my
divorce, after my grief, after my self-flagellation, after questioning my self-worth, after my understanding that I
have what it takes to battle my chronic
eye disease—interesting things began
to unfold. I met my now-husband
Jason, I found a job that was fulfilling,
and I shifted from always leaning on
my community of care to mostly supporting them. I deliberately use the
term unfold because the process took
a long time and many steps, and the
after of something is always still the
before to something else.
Adapted excerpt from the book Sit Down to Rise
Up: How Radical Self-Care Can Change the World.
Copyright © 2021 by Shelly Tygielski. Printed
with permission from New World Library—www.