Building a butterfly on the run

When I go running with my sister, that first mile is full of frustration. It doesn’t have anything to do with the run itself; that’s just about how long it takes us to go through whatever’s been bugging us recently.

Because we’re so different in so many ways, what strikes one of us as an insurmountable problem often seems like no big deal to the other. We almost always come up with a solution, or at least a coping mechanism, by the time we get to the 2-mile turnaround at the bridge.

On one especially memorable run last fall, Traci was describing her fruitless attempts to find a monarch caterpillar for her daughter’s class butterfly project, despite several scratchy searches through thickets of promising-looking weeds.

A few minutes later we nearly stepped on one, right there on the jogging path.

Traci scooped it up and carried it in her hand as we ran. Which was tricky, because you couldn’t just hold it. It kept crawling over her fingers, leaving a sticky stringy membrane along its path. But she was determined to deliver this caterpillar safely to Monroe’s school, and she was equally determined to finish our run. So we took turns carrying the creepy-crawlie, taking care to neither crush it nor let it crawl off the ends of our fingers.

As we ran, we wondered how this journey felt to our passenger. How far does a caterpillar travel before it becomes a butterfly? Probably not 3 miles, which was how far we had left to go when we picked it up. I kept thinking about this scene in a William Faulkner novel in which a character who’d grown up in a horse-and-buggy world takes his first terrifying ride in an automobile. Did it feel like that? Or did crawling on our fingers feel more like taking a stroll on a planet moving so slowly you didn’t notice any movement but your own?

The caterpillar survived its journey, and a delighted Monroe took it to her first grade teacher the next morning. A few weeks later, it turned into a butterfly, right on schedule, and the class sent it on its way with all the usual fanfare.

Besides providing Monroe with yet another opportunity to be the center of attention — as the youngest of 11 grandchildren, it’s a role she’s quite used to — we like to think we saved that caterpillar’s life. The only reason it didn’t get crushed underfoot is that I happened to be looking down, as I do from time to time ever since another memorable run in which we encountered several garter snakes on this same trail.

The funny thing is, I doubt Traci would’ve even noticed the snakes if I hadn’t pointed them out. They were small to begin with, and blended in with the leaves and twigs scattered about. She isn’t as freaked out about snakes as I am, so it doesn’t occur to her to periodically scan the trail for wriggling reptiles.

The caterpillar story is representative of our on-the-run problem solving in that each of us provides a perspective or tendency that expands the other person’s vision. Scientists who study the interactions of business teams have observed that teams that work well together — that build on each other’s strengths rather than methodically shooting down other people’s ideas — produce data that resembles  the shape of a butterfly*.

I like to think that Traci and I build butterflies when we run. Sure, we do our share of griping and whining, especially in that first mile. But after we pass a certain point in the trail, we remind each other to switch into positive mode, to start figuring out what we can do to improve whatever it is we’re unhappy about.

And on that one run, at least, by preserving the life of a caterpillar, we really did succeed in helping build a butterfly.

*I first read about this in “Positivity,” by Barbarba L. Fredrickson, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Describing the work of mathematician Marcial Losada, Fredrickson writes that “the butterfly … represented the dynamics of those flourishing, high-performing business teams. The ‘wings’ of this butterfly were tall. Their height reflected the high positivity ratios that Losada had uncovered in these high-performance teams.”

When Losada modeled the coordinates of mixed-performance teams, they, too produced butterflies, but of a decidedly inferior sort: “…their butterfly was much smaller, its wings not nearly as tall. This diminished stature reflected the lower positivity ratios Losada had uncovered in these teams. … More telling, though, this smaller butterfly was not resilient. It didn’t last. In fact, following an encounter with extreme negativity, the butterfly devolved into … a rut.”

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