But if anything can produce a meltdown faster than a bucket of water on a witch from Oz, it’s the stress induced by the Covid-19 crisis.
Everything is uncertain these days. Jobs are on the line, kids are home from school, and social bonds are strained, sometimes to the breaking point. There is a lot of melting-down going around.
We commonly refer to difficult times, periods of grief or anguish, in terms of dissolution. A person might go to pieces, fall apart, dissolve into tears, or have a meltdown. This latter can describe anything from a childhood tantrum at the grocery store to a coworker who loses their cool and gives the boss an earful. Wicked witches excepted, meltdowns as we know them are usually of shorter duration than breakdowns.
A breakdown lasts longer – weeks, months, or even years. People in this state are often not able to function well, if at all, in jobs or relationships. Nearly all recover, and afterward it is not unusual for them to be different. Maybe they have a shift in perspective that leads them to choose a trajectory more in line with their dreams. As a result of coming through an intensely dark period, an individual may report feeling happier and more authentic than before.
Sometimes a drastic rearrangement of the self we once knew is necessary in order to achieve our fullest potential. In my experience this is always hard, and is almost always something imposed upon us, not chosen. But we are not the only species that undergoes a kind of radical and involuntary self-improvement ordeal.
This is the time of year when caterpillars have to make the leap from glorified maggot to graceful flying machine. The process requires them to have a complete breakdown, during which they literally melt down. A caterpillar of course is the juvenile stage of a moth or butterfly, and most are stubby, cigar-shaped, soft-bodied crawly things which somehow become gossamer-winged wonders.
We know they enter a pupal stage to change costumes, but until fairly recent times we knew more about the goings-on inside Clark Kent’s phone booth than what happened during pupation. Thanks to electron micrography and other fancy stuff, though, we now know a little more.
Some caterpillars produce silk to weave cocoons in which they pupate. Others, for example the monarch, make a chrysalis, a pupal case with a translucent, membranous skin around it. Once housing is settled, the hard part (by our standards at least) begins. Take the monarch as an example. Ensconced in its regal gold-flecked chrysalis, the cute, stripey chub of a caterpillar releases enzymes which dissolve its body. All of it. For a time, that elegant chrysalis that children love to seek out on milkweed plants is full of nothing but green caterpillar soup. Seriously, it would drain out if you poked a hole in the bottom. Now that’s a meltdown.
As the caterpillar liquefies, most of its cells burst open. This is akin to pulverizing a Lego car and then pressing the dust into new blocks to create a Lego plane rather than just re-using the blocks. There are a few cells, however, which make it through the enzymatic blender. These are analogous to stem cells, and biologists have dubbed them “imaginal cells.” This is a wonderfully poetic term, as if part of the caterpillar could always imagine its future flying self.
I had heard that a caterpillar’s immune system perceived imaginal cells as foreign material, and would mount a response in an effort to eliminate them. This would make for an even stronger transformation metaphor, because we all resist change at first, sometimes violently. But alas, science does not confirm the idea that a larva fights tooth and tarsal claw against being transmuted into an adult.
In a sense, imaginal cells do foresee the future winged adult, as they contain the butterfly blueprint, the DNA flying-machine instructions. As far as I can ascertain, no one understands quite how imaginal cells take pulverized Lego, as it were, and fashion new kinds of cells from them. It’s better than magic. Caterpillar soup contains a few other ingredients in addition to liquid proteins and imaginal cells. From the time it hatches, each larva has within it a fixed number of somewhat flat, more-or-less round structures of highly organized imaginal cells called imaginal discs. These discs telescope out like, I don’t know, telescopes or something, to become appendages such as legs, wings and antennae.
By the time the pupal chamber unzips and an adult monarch emerges from its chrysalis to rub its bleary eyes and stretch its wings, not a drop of caterpillar soup remains. All of it was supped up to serve its new life as a butterfly. If said butterfly is a member of the fourth and last generation of the summer, it might want a cup of coffee before its 3,000-mile trip south. (In spring, monarchs take several generations, relay-style, to get all the way north, but the final brood flies to Mexico for the winter in one marathon shot.)
We all know someone who is in the midst of a meltdown, if not a breakdown, in these challenging times. We need to be supportive, and to take heart in the knowledge that they will come out the other side stronger in some way. A greater facility for compassion, a more fulfilling career path, or the realization that they need to leave a toxic relationship – these and other potential gifts of dissolution can be wings of sorts for us. In comforting a friend, though, best not to mention that their misery is doing them some good. Invite them for a cup of tea, or better yet, a bowl of soup, and ponder meltdowns and transformations as you sit in solidarity with them.
Photo of Monarch butterfly by Sandy Van Vranken.