Nearly fifty years ago,
I was preparing a presentation for my third grade class at Collins Track Elementary School
in Merchantville, NJ. It was a show and tell event, and I was nervous. My teacher, Miss
Broom, was tall and severe. Adding to her formidable appearance was her face-more
specifically, her exaggerated use of mascara on her eyebrows. When she was upset with your
behavior or your answer, she would express her displeasure by raising her eyebrow into an
inverted "V". To a third grader, her persona took on a most foreboding
countenance. Because of her no nonsense personality, I was experiencing terror about my
I expressed my anxiety to my mother who
dismissed my terror as "just having butterflies." She told me to go outside and
play to take my mind off them. I went outside but my heart wasn't into playing. I
went instead to my friend, Mr. Lee and told him about my dreaded angst.
I knew that if I presented my problem
with butterflies to my friend, he would help me deal with it. Mr. Lee was weeding his
flowerbeds when I arrived with my bundle of butterflies fluttering about inside my
stomach. Patiently, he listened to me blurt out the problem and then pointed to the ground
indicating that I should sit down. I sat cross-legged as I had many times in the past
awaiting his lesson of life.
Mr. Lee told me about his feelings of
trepidation when he was a little boy in China. To cope with his butterflies, he went to a
Buddhist monk who told him, "When butterflies fly inside you, force them to fly in
formation." Mr. Lee didn't say how he reacted to that monk's admonition,
but I didn't understand anything of what the monk had meant. Confusion was written in
boldface all over my face. Therefore, Mr. Lee began to explain the meaning to the
monk's pronouncement. Then he suggested several ways of forcing the butterflies to
fly in formation instead of merely observing their fluttering:
List separately the individual tasks necessary to accomplish
the overall assignment. The first
step is to breakdown the overwhelming problem into smaller parts. For example, back in
third grade, I needed to decide what I was going to bring to show and tell. Then I needed
to decide what I was going to tell the class about the item. Finally, I had to practice my
speech. Breaking down the project into smaller and more manageable parts is still the
necessary first step even a half century later.
Take small bites of the problem instead of trying to devour
the entire problem all at once.
Once I had the list of things that I needed to do, I could concentrate on just one item at
a time. In that way, I didn't overwhelm myself with all the other things that I
needed to do. Back then, I didn't have to worry about my speech, when I was dealing
with what to bring for show and tell. Even as an adult, sometimes the massiveness of a
particular project bewilders me. It becomes a manageable undertaking when I work on only
one thing at a time. One can only devour a dinosaur one bite at a time.
Use your fear to force the butterflies into formation. Instead of avoiding the feelings of fear, anxiety,
or dread, make them work for you. If I hadn't experienced the fear related to the
show and tell assignment, I wouldn't have learned Mr. Lee's lesson of life.
Without discomfort, we have a tendency not to make the necessary moves to grow and improve
our lives. When you experience pain or worry, face it and make it work for you and not
Know that you are in control of your life; don't allow
a bunch of fluttering butterflies usurp control over you. As adults, we need to know that we can make our own reality. The
way that I feel about something largely determines its outcome. It is a choice between
taking control of your life or losing control over it. Back in third grade, I had the
choice of controlling my life or allowing the butterflies to control it. In the half
century since my show and tell butterflies, this truth hasn't changed. We can control
our lives and feelings by remembering the monk's message to Mr. Lee: "When
butterflies fly inside you, force them to fly in formation."