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Being prepared to follow the butterfly

Photo by Holly Bobbins Photography

By Beth Kempton, BA in Japanese and Management Studies alumna - August 2020

I wrote a book during the first few weeks of lockdown. I hadn’t planned to, but I’m a writer, and writing books is the way I respond to things that keep tugging at my sleeve. One day in April, after many hours at my desk working on We Are in This Together – a book about finding hope in times of crisis - I went for a walk in a conservation area near my home. I have been there many times and have a favourite route, which takes me over a bridge and past a pond, where I like to watch for ducks and water boatmen.

That particular afternoon, for the first time, I noticed a narrow turnoff leading to a small wood. Beyond a short corridor of green the path forked into three. Just at the point where it diverged was a fallen tree, split vertically, perhaps by lightning, into three perfectly equal parts. Each of the three shards of the trunk had fallen so precisely that one-third lay directly across each of the three forks of the path. Every visible route forward was blocked.

The vibrant young leaves clinging to the branches told me this was a recent, sudden event, although we hadn’t had a storm in weeks. As I was pondering the mystery of this, a butterfly flitted past and pulled my gaze to the right. There was no path there, only long grass leading round the back of the copse, but it was passable.

I studied the scene, moved by how this felt like some kind of living metaphor for what was going on in the world right then, and how we were – and still are - being called to accept that the tree has fallen, and the path we know is blocked in every direction. Yet there is a way round and beyond if only we are prepared to change course and follow the butterfly.

There are so many stories in myth of going into the forest, and there is something distinctly mythical about what has unfolded in the wake of the pandemic this year. The point is not to clear the felled tree and patch up the damaged pathways. It’s to forge a new path.

The time to start pondering what lies beyond is not when we get there, but now, as we step into the long grass. Because the sooner we start influencing that trajectory with our own actions, the sooner and further the trajectory shifts.

One day we’ll look back on the time the pandemic hit. We’ll remember where we were when we first took it seriously. We’ll remember who we were living with, and who we were separated from. We’ll remember the moments of simple joy and the moments of heart-wrenching sorrow. The kindnesses, the little things that really mattered, the sense of being awash with not knowing, and how sometimes that buoyed us because we didn’t need to have all the answers any more.

And we’ll remember the anticipation of gathering, and what it felt like when we got there – hugging again, sharing stories face to face again, seeing our children revel in play dates again, crying and sighing and being together again. And then we’ll stand back and see what has been shattered, and what can be rebuilt, what needs to be grieved, and what can rise anew.

Before all this, many of us were sleepwalking through our days. Now we have rested and opened our eyes. We have a new empathy for each other. As a result of all that has happened, there remain few people who don’t know what it means to feel isolated, vulnerable, anxious, at risk, all at sea. This was too big to ignore, and we cannot unsee what we have seen. We have woken up to other people’s pain and felt our compassion for each other. May we stay awake to that.

I wonder, when this is over will we continue to applaud the front-line workers when it’s time for their next pay review? Or recall the loaf a neighbour left on our doorstep when we’re annoyed about their bins? Or picture those satellite photos of clear skies over China when we’re one click away from yet another pair of trainers?

Will we remember how nervous we felt when we heard the borders were closing, knowing that much of our food and medicine comes from far away? Will we recall how it wasn’t the celebrities who got food to our table? How we felt called to protect our elders, and how much they taught us about cheerfulness and resilience when times got tough?

Will we remember how we figured things out, kept our humour, taught our children, entertained ourselves, and took such good care of each other? Will we give ourselves credit for staying at home even when our four walls were driving us crazy, because we knew it was the right thing to do? Will we remember the way our politicians cared about us, or didn’t, the next time we vote? And will we carry the stillness with us, so that we can return anytime?

I don’t know, but I know what I hope.

We are alive. We are here. We are blessed to be on Earth at this particular moment in history, with this particular opportunity.

By the time we are gone it will be too late, so to the extent to which humans get to decide, we are the ones who get to decide. We need radical compassion and open-eyed action. We are being called to show up with the soul of a therapist and the heart of an activist. May we lead with light as we venture forth, together.

The time is now. There is only now. Are you ready?

All rise. There is much to be done.

Beth Kempton is an award-winning entrepreneur and self-help author, whose books have been translated into 24 languages. She teaches and writes about doing what you love and living well. Beth is a Reiki Master and alongside her Durham degree, holds a BA in Japanese and Management Studies from Durham and an MA in Interpreting & Translating from the University of Bath.Her latest book We Are in This Together: Finding hope and opportunity in the depths of adversity is out now.