I’ve been watching a chrysalis in the garden for the last week, a non-descript lump of cells which will soon open and become a beautiful butterfly, unrecognisable from the caterpillar who built it. Nature is full of transformations, from the ugly duckling to the prickly pear, but it is the human transformation which can be the most subtle and which is, of course, the one we are most obsessed with.
For once I’m not talking about physical transformation which society is becoming more and more obsessed with. Sure, we can get a new hair cut to make us feel better, put on make up, do some exercise or the extreme – get some plastic surgery, but it won’t transform who you fundamentally are and it certainly won’t make you a better person. For me, the spiritual transformation is much more fascinating. We spend our lives searching for meaning, trying to understand who we are, trying to be a better daughter, sister, mother, wife, rarely satisfied with who we are and what we have to offer the world. Once in a while we get it right and we are grateful and grounded for a moment, but most of the time we are haunted by demons; Why did I make that joke at her expense? Why doesn’t he love me? Am I ever going to succeed? Where is my life taking me? Sometimes we can feel frustrated, angry with ourselves for not accepting who we are but unable to do just that, unable to just be.
I was quite a serious and timid little girl and, like many little girls, I wanted to be an actress. Aside from the fame and the glamour, it was the possibility of becoming someone else which enticed me, to play a role, so that I didn’t have to play the part which life had decided for me. But, sadly for Hollywood, I’ve since learnt that the best role we can ever play is ourselves.
Last year I took a sabbatical, mostly to have an extended holiday but partly to get closer to ‘me’. During that time I learnt to sail in North Carolina. I have always been terrified of water. Not just deep water, i.e. the ocean, but all water. I’m not even very fond of having a shower to be honest. When I wash my face, I screw it up as tight as possible so not a drop enters the eyes or mouth and often hold my nose to prevent water from going in there too. It is such a palaver that it doesn’t happen very often, thank goodness for face wipes! Anyway, one day we were in this tiny training boat and my co-learner had control. I should say, up to this point I had executed every manoeuvre perfectly, not because I am a particularly competent sailor, but because I was so terrified about going overboard that every part of my being insisted that I do things, if not absolutely correctly, then at least safely. My co-learner was slightly more gung-ho than I was and I just knew he hadn’t been listening to all the instructions so when the instructor shouted ‘tack!’ he tried to jibe and for a fleeting moment the boat (did I mention it was tiny?) took on an almost 90 degree angle which required an impulsive reaction from me and my somewhat elderly instructor to leap to the rescue and regain control of the vessel. We all laughed about how close we had come to capsizing, but in that moment something within me had transformed. While I was still scared of the water, I had a respect for the ocean which I had previously not understood, and for a brief moment the fear left me and I was able to just be.
That incident and several others during my sabbatical taught me that I will never change who I am fundamentally, but I can challenge it daily, and in doing so aim to transform into the best possible me. Making almost imperceptible changes in my life, such as saying ‘Good Morning’ to the bus driver (believe me, it’s unusual in London) or making a round of tea at work, are daily reminders that I am capable of being a better me.
Now, when I look in the mirror, I no longer see that frightened little girl, desperate to be anyone but her, she’s still there, but through experiences she is becoming the woman she never thought she could be. I see wrinkles which remind me of the laughter I’ve had in my life, I see freckles which remind me I shouldn’t have stayed so long in the sun, and I see a body which reminds me that I am always the one to have one more bite or beer, but all those things are merely physical representations of the me that I have always been. And I’m starting to be ok with that.
So remember, the ugly duckling, once he became a swan, was still the ugly duckling, Optimus Prime was always just a truck, the butterfly has the same DNA as the caterpillar and leopards can’t change their spots. But you can be the best you you can be. So say ‘Good Morning’ to the bus driver, it might make your day.