On Metamorphosis

A few weeks ago, This American Life (my very favorite radio program) aired a radio play by David Rakoff (my very favorite contributor). The premise of his short is an epistolary exchange between Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis character Gergor Samsa who awakens to discover he has become a cockroach and Doctor Seuss, as health aide to creatures wild and wiggly. 

While Gregor’s missives are grave and ponderous, Seuss’ responses are cheery and, as to be expected, in rhyming couplets. Eventually the two meet in the middle with regards to tone, but alas Seuss cannot help Gregor in his hopes of reverting back to human form. Before his demise, Seuss does offer that hope is often the best medicine when grappling with these shifts, and writes:

Remember when tempted to heap self-reproach that he who formed lilies created the roach.

I was talking with a friend about this story and she said how much she loved Kafka's book as this metaphor of the horrifying transformations of adolescence, when you understand nothing about your body, you emotions, all these intense changes, and to top it off no one seems to understand you. I was inspired to re-read Kafka's story, and while I'm moved by his simple and poignant narrative, I'll admit he doesn't quite get to me the way that David Rakoff does -- maybe it's the rhyming.

When we’re in times of transition, adolescence and beyond, and when we’re doing the intense work of healing the wounds of just being a human in the world, it can be so easy to rub up against those parts of ourselves that appear monstrous: pain and despair, anger and disappointment, jealousy and guilt. All those things that we’re so often told to rise above. And when we can’t just “rise above,” when these feelings wash through us (because we are so very human) it is easy to fall into that trap of despising apparently grotesque elements of ourselves. We lament our lack of “progress,” as if healing were linear.

But these feelings, too, matter. These feelings, too, have a place within our experiences. They are so very powerful and despite what we may have been told as young people (or adults!) there is nothing inherently bad about emotions. How much kinder to ourselves might it be to recognize these feelings for what they are? Such human experiences, with as much presence and legitimacy as the lily, as the roach.

What if, when they arose, we didn’t recoil in horror or reject these feelings? What if instead we simply offered a kind hello, and let them be what they were for as long as they needed?

When we give these parts of us that we usually turn away from the space to be what they are, when we actually care enough about ourselves to look at and listen to them, it has been my experience that these supposedly ugly parts get just as big as they need to (no bigger) and then disperse. When they don’t have to fight for our attention anymore, they can settle back into place.

The final entry in Rakoff’s story is from Greta, Gregor’s sister, writing to the doctor to let him know of her brother’s death. She notes that after he died, the crack in his carapace revealed the beautiful iridescent wings of a beetle. Not a roach, a beetle after all. Rakoff’s Greta writes, “A beetle! Even the word is lovely.” 

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Underneath these hard and supposedly broken parts of ourselves, through these cracks, are the most striking, shining aspects of our humanity. Our incredible capacity for feeling, for connection, for flight.

When you feel ugly about your process, about your feelings, when you wish so hard for things to be easier or different, know that this, too, is so very human, and offer it a kind hello. And maybe, with all these kind hellos, we can see all the myriad steps of the process of transition for what they are — just what they need to be.


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