Decades ago, while speaking of an upcoming championship bout, Muhammad Ali constructed a poetic couplet of epic proportions. With glitzy words corresponding to his style both in and out of the ring, “The Greatest” claimed he would “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” because his opponent’s “hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.” Few athletes, maybe no others, have matched Ali’s combination of bravado, proficiency, showmanship, and charisma. Rightly and deservedly, he has more than once been declared the most iconic sporting figure of the previous century. And while I’m not one to tug on Superman’s cape, I’d like to slightly amend his most famous of phrases. I believe that before one can “float like a butterfly,” he or she must fight like one.
You might know the familiar story of a little boy who came upon a cocoon in the forest. He knew exactly what it was, so he snapped off the stick to which it was attached, and took it home. Every day he would watch this little pouch, knowing a remarkable metamorphosis was going on inside. Then one day it happened. A small tear in the chrysalis appeared, and the butterfly began to emerge. But it was such an awful struggle. The slit was so tiny and the butterfly was now so big. The poor thing was desperately fighting and scratching to get out, and the little boy was so worried about his new little friend.
So, the boy decided to help. He took a pair of school scissors and carefully cut the cocoon open to rescue the exhausted, beautiful butterfly. But it wasn’t beautiful; not at all. It was fat and swollen. Its wings were limp and wilted. Further, over time, it never learned to fly. It could only crawl around in a shoebox, a jar, or wherever the boy placed it. When the boy told his science teacher this gloomy tale, he was taught an invaluable lesson: The butterfly had to struggle. The butterfly had to face oppositional forces. The butterfly’s laborious effort to emerge from its shell was nature’s way of circulating dormant blood and strengthening new wings. The butterfly’s fight to get out of the cocoon was not an impediment. It was preparation, and the boy’s “help” actually turned out to be a hindrance.
Resistance is required to transform a crawling, ugly insect into a magnificent, winged, flying machine. And what is true in nature, is true of human nature too: Some suffering is necessary. We have to struggle – we must – if we will ever gain the strength we need to fly. This is anathema to our North American ears, however, because we have constructed a society with a monumentally low threshold for pain. Sadly, such pain-aversion isn’t limited to a small subsection of our culture. It is rampant, extending from playrooms to boardrooms, as present in State Houses as in fraternity houses, and manifesting itself in everything from helicopter-parenting to fiscal irresponsibility.
When a person thinks that he or she should never, under any circumstances, suffer deprivation or discomfort, it doesn’t create character; it creates narcissism. So beware of those for whom everything has come easy; those who have never had to scrape their way through hard times. Beware of those who have always had someone else do the heavy lifting for them and protect them from any and all distress. It’s hard for such a person to have any moral strength.
I’m not advocating for self-inflicted violence. I’m only pointing to the consummate spiritual principle: There is no resurrection without a cross, no greatness without grief, and no strength apart from suffering. The struggle is a necessary process in the maturation process. When we avoid suffering at all costs, we fail to see that such behavior will cost us everything, for if we cannot tolerate anything that hurts or discomforts us now, we will never become people of faith, character, or maturity later. With apologies to Ali, we will never “float like a butterfly” until we have learned to fight like one.