Of transient butterflies


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Category: Reflections 04 Jul 10

Stepping out into the glare of the morning sun on my doorstep stained with recent rain I stopped at the sight of the butterfly: buttercup yellow, boldly slashed with black, spangled with royal blue. I was astonished that it didn’t move as I stepped back quietly, to admire some more. “They only live for about two weeks” said my husband knowing how little I know of botany and science. “It’s dead.” He said flatly as I uncomprehending, waited. I drove off to my chores of the day to a ridiculously lavish landscape: tropical painting, permutations of green, mist rising out of curves of the Northern range, reflected now in a ghostly white translucent butterfly. “We are not so different from that are we?” The difference between us is that he has accepted our animal nature, our transience, and I have not.


I linked death to the end of beauty having watched both being snatched from those I loved. But this butterfly died mid flight, mid beauty, in the sun. A life of flight, absolute unreflecting freedom, instinctual pleasure and sudden death. If humans lived like that they would be called selfish. Yet we are not so different. It’s true that the older we get the tighter our straitjackets of responsibility and the higher the stakes in the social pecking order which we work for all our adult lives. It’s true that some limp into death defeated and no longer beautiful. But our visceral instinct is not that different from that of the butterfly. Of wanting a single shot at life on our own terms, of whimsical landings. You see that spillage in everyone. In the Queen of England who has been seen in public with a broken handbag and painful heels, and looks happier when out riding.


Heir apparent

In her heir apparent, speaking of tampons to a mistress; in the most reactionary men and women who, in unguarded moments speak of the most improbable dreams: of being on the stage, quitting jobs, learning to dance; in regular scandals that plague those in the public eye, from Tiger Woods, to Sarkozy’s racy private life. Its spillage into freedom that is frowned upon by society which requires that rules are kept so that the social contract and order is maintained for the larger good. We believe freedom to think out of the box, to live inside your head is unseemly to anyone but the young, but actually it belongs to everyone. We’d be surprised at the eighteen year old that lives in middle-aged men and women. I recognized adolescent stirrings when I was sent an email that encouraged people to eviscerate, respond with their gut.


It goes like this: “What is your idea of perfect happiness? What is your greatest fear? What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? What is the trait you most deplore in others? Which living person do you most admire? Your greatest extravagance? What is your current state of mind? What do you consider the most overrated virtue? On what occasion do you lie? What is the quality you most like in a man? What is the quality you most like in a woman? Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “What or who is the greatest love of your life? When and where were you happiest? Which talent would you most like to have? What is your most treasured possession? What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? What is your favourite occupation? What is your most marked characteristic? What do you most value in your friends? Who is your favourite hero of fiction? Who are your heroes in real life? What do you most dislike? What is your greatest regret? How would you like to die? What is your motto?”


The responses were selfish and needy. Everyone wanted love. Everyone wanted freedom, fame, excitement. Also altruism. They wanted it for everyone else too. We could have been hanging around Stonehenge hippies. Coincidentally, this week I had been reading Richard Dawkins 1976 Classic, The Selfish Gene which examines the biology of human selfishness. Consider this review:


The selfish gene

“The world of the selfish gene revolves around savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit, and yet, Dawkins argues, acts of apparent altruism do exist in nature. Bees, for example, will commit suicide when they sting to protect the hive, and birds will risk their lives to warn the flock of an approaching hawk.” Astonishingly, Dawkins believes we can actually alter “the tyranny” of our selfish genes, individually and collectively through conscious everyday choices. “Be warned,” Dawkins writes, “that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals co-operate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.”


It would be wonderful to be like the butterfly, diaphanous, of riotious colour, curious, soaring, self contained. But that wouldn’t last. Also we were different. Not because of some kind of clumsy societal pecking order but because of the thing that separates us from animals encompassed in the word we call “humanity”. Dr Pat Bishop, doyen among our artists spoke of it recently. Of service which is the core of humanity. “No one has crossed, until the last one has crossed and some we will have to carry.” The birds and the bees understand that instinctually. Collective survival depends on us helping the vulnerable amongst us. In a country with the highest rates of murder in a non-warring country where at least 300,000 people live below the poverty line, some 400,000 are functionally illiterate; there are many we have to carry. With the butterfly we find our fragile transience bearable. Having once witnessed its freedom, the memory of beauty allows us to bear its inevitable loss.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur