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 pending presentation.

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 against you.
  • 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."