On cocoons

Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

If you sliced open a caterpillar’s cocoon, you’d expect to find a tiny beast, a creature that would look new to you yet somehow familiar. Half caterpillar, half butterfly, perhaps a shiny and squiggly green grub just starting to sprout wings; wet, furled, squished into its soft, shrouding casing. But that is not what you would find. 

If you plucked a cocoon from its silky strings and took a fingernail to it, you would not find an insectan chimera. You would find no wings, no spongy body, no little nubbin legs. There would be no velveteen antennae, no eyes of iridescence. You would find goo. Just a cocoon of fibers and silk filled with sticky, yellow goo.

After a caterpillar spins itself a cocoon, it begins to break down. It doesn’t grow wings, doesn’t evolve. It devolves. It dissolves. It disintegrates. And then it rebuilds. From this unnerving and miraculous transformation comes a question: When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, is it still the same animal? If it returns to nothing but molecules and paste before reincarnating itself, can you still call it by the same name? Or is one animal just taking the other’s place?

The metaphor here is not subtle, particularly if you have at a time spun your own cocoon out of necessity, forged a place to rest in the dark, stretched to turn puss and paste into something that can carry you.

The answer, somehow, is both. A caterpillar subjected to Pavlovian tricks and trained to react to specific smells will react in kind once it has transformed. An insect left alone will likewise present no reaction when it has wings. It is the same beast, utterly rearranged.

The metaphor here is not subtle, particularly if you have at a time spun your own cocoon out of necessity, forged a place to rest in the dark, stretched to turn puss and paste into something that can carry you. It’s a metaphor worth clinging to.

There’s something deeply comforting about the notion that even when you’re in the goo, so to speak, there’s a part of yourself—an essence or an atom or a cell—that you retain, and that someday, if you accept where you are and keep working, you will return to the world. Changed, but still you.



  1. wow. So thought provoking!

    I’m thinking about the times I cocooned. This metaphor is so deep, I had to look carefully, to see not only if it seems to apply to me, but if lends insight the way a good metaphor will do. 🙂

    Starting at the butterfly, the who-I-am of today is…incredibly different from who I was. I have basic assumptions – love exists, courage is worth it, fear is powerful and yet can be tamed, and many more – that were utterly invisible 35 years ago when I began my changes toward mental and emotional health.

    Sometimes I see old habits (like the trained behaviors you mention) that have survived: I still don’t like my name, for example; I wanted something with some sass. 🙂 And yet I had a conversation with a complete stranger yesterday in which I admitted this (her name was Cocoa), and she touched my heart in such a gentle way to remind me that such assumptions are not real, that even in the simplest thing like a name that feels so ordinary, lurks magic (even if it is in the nature of reinterpretation, not transformation). So old-I is in here, but…so transformed as to be mostly unrecognizable — it’s a startle moment when I see the old me (but it’s there more often than I acknowledge, too).

    So I definitely think the metaphor holds, and serves a large purpose: we are changed, and we have old selves in there — mundane, afraid, powerful, and all the rest. They are not so much a foundation as what remains after you transform a human being into an adult; for some of us, it feels like we have moved into a new self, and for some, there is hardly any difference at all. But no matter how much I’ve changed (and the journey from childhood PTSD to a loving, supportive adult is a really long and varied one), I can recognize who I was. Enough, I think, so that I don’t think I really ever became goo in the same sense as a caterpillar, but close enough to yield powerful insights about growth, emotional recovery, and love.

    Which proves, at least to me, that when we look at ourselves, the accuracy of our perceptions of self need not be entirely accurate to be effective; courage means the most, and what is courage if not building a safe home for your self and dissolving into an unknowable future? It makes me feel wonderful to think that life makes that possible.

  2. This just shook me to my core. Thank you. Again.


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