Three Lessons From 10 Caterpillars
This time last year, I bought my daughter a tub containing five caterpillars. I thought it would be a great way for her to learn about butterflies – to see that metamorphosis and reflect on the miracles of Allāh’s creation.
We watched the caterpillars eat and grow. We watched them follow the steps outlined in the classic story The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Four beautiful butterflies emerged perfectly from the tub, but the fifth emerged with a defective wing. It seemed at first to be just like the other butterflies, but my daughter burst into tears when she saw the butterflies the next day. The fifth butterfly was laying on its back with it legs kicking, clearly struggling. I tried to pick it up, something I had never done before, and I was amazed that when I put my finger next to it, the caterpillar used my finger as a foothold to get itself upright again. I let it out of the habitat it was in and placed it in a container where I could easily help it back on its feet if it fell over.
This fifth butterfly never took flight. By the time we released the other four butterflies, this butterfly had died. Yet, despite never flying or having the luxury of being free in a garden, this butterfly taught me and my daughter more about butterflies than the others did.
We couldn’t pick up the other butterflies in the same way, or touch their wings and see the scales that give them their distinctive patterns up close. We wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the detail of how they drink and how strong their legs are. We would have remained limited in our understanding had we not had the fortune of having this butterfly.
This year, I repeated what I had done last year. Another tub of five caterpillars. Slightly scarred from our experience with the death of the butterfly from last year, my daughter and I watched and waited on tenterhooks as the caterpillars ate their way through their food, got fat, and hung upside down in their chrysalides (cocoons). As I write this, only one butterfly has emerged in all its glory, while the other four have yet to emerge.
Although we had already witnessed this miracle last year, the experience this year taught us something new. As we watched the body of this sole butterfly that had emerged, we couldn’t understand why the body of the butterfly – not only its wings, but also its thorax – looks so different from its original caterpillar body. So, like any question we don’t know the answer to, we Googled it. What actually happens in that cocoon? We know the caterpillar turns into a butterfly, but how? It can’t just be that it grows wings.
It turns out that after eating all their required food, the caterpillars enter their cocoon and digest their own bodies. That’s right. They release enzymes that cause their own bodies to digest and form what would look like a gooey caterpillar soup if you cut the chrysalis open at just the right time. Note: we did not try this at home, but we take Google’s word for it.
This completely blew our minds but made total sense. It explained why every aspect of the caterpillar had changed now that it was a butterfly. It’s amazing to think that something so beautiful and intentional could result from such a gooey mess.
Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) says in Sūrah al-Qiyāma:
“Does man think We cannot assemble his bones? Nay we are able to put together in perfect order the very tips of his fingers.”
This is only one of the many times where Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) references the wonders of His creation and His ability to bring life to what was dead. We are reminded to reflect and ponder on Allāh’s creations. In the example of this butterfly experience, we are reminded of a number of lessons:
1. Tests are inevitable. It is how we respond that counts
We have all been given tests in this life. For the butterfly that had a clipped wing, its test was its inability to fly. We all have our own metaphorical broken wings. However, some of us are impacted more than others, and as Muslims it is our duty to ensure that we support one another. The Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said:
“The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion, and sympathy are just like one body. When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever.”
2. Reflection goes together with understanding
In this time of lockdown, where many of us have had time to reflect and ponder, we can learn new things. However, this must be done with a degree of intentionality. I have seen butterflies many times, but it was only when I placed myself in a deliberate state of wanting to watch them as they made that conversion from caterpillar to butterfly that I learnt so much. There are many examples of where Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) tells us to reflect on His creation in order to see His signs, but He also mentions a caveat: the signs are for ‘men of understanding’. You can see something but you will not benefit from it unless you deliberately place yourself in a mindset that opens you up to understanding. In Sūrah Āl ʿImrān, Allāh says:
“Verily! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding.”
3. Fear is powerful, but trust in Allāh is even more powerful
When I first told my daughter that we would be getting some caterpillars this year, she hesitated, remembering her devastation at the one that died last year. She feared that the same could happen this time around. Fear is a powerful emotion. We know that it can make you irrational – stockpiling toilet roll in the midst of a pandemic, for example.
However, what is more powerful than fear is having tawakkul. I insisted on getting the caterpillars again this year because I wanted my daughter to understand that a butterfly was going to be defective whether under our watch or anyone else’s watch. This is because the matter of the butterfly having that defect has already been decreed by Allāh. I also wanted my daughter to practice being hopeful that not all things are doom and gloom, and that it is perfectly possible that all five butterflies this year would be just fine. If not, then they will come out exactly as they were intended by their Creator.
Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) says in Sūrah al-Talāq:
“And He will provide him from (sources) he never could imagine. And whosoever puts his trust in Allāh, then He will suffice him. Verily, Allāh will accomplish his purpose. Indeed Allāh has set a measure for all things.”