The Boy, the Man, and the Butterfly (a story)

[ Content Warning: This story references bullying and suicidal ideation. ]

Once upon a time, many years ago, a boy was born. In most ways, this was entirely unremarkable. Boys are born all the time, and the boy’s family wasn’t unusual. It was a large family, but families were larger back then than they tend to be now. 

Some bad things happened to the boy, but bad things tend to happen to people, then as well as now. 

The boy’s parents didn’t know how to help him understand that bad things happen to people. 

Back when the boy was growing up, very few people understood how to help with these things. 

His dad thought that if you just acted tough, you’d be okay. He called this ‘being a man.’ The idea seemed to be that if you acted as if bad things didn’t hurt you, then the bad things couldn’t hurt you. 

His mom thought that if you got the house clean and put plenty of good food on the table, things would be okay. 

His mom and dad grew up that way, so it makes sense that they thought that way. 

When the boy was very young, his older brother tried to paddle a little boat out onto a little pond. He fell out of the little boat and he died.

His mom was very sad, but she didn’t ever show it.

His dad was very sad, but he didn’t ever show it. 

The boy didn’t know where his brother went, and he was very sad, too. 

When the boy was a bit older, he went to school, and because the boy seemed different from most of the kids, some of the boys were cruel to him.

The boy’s dad loved the boy, but he didn’t know how to help him. He would have just fought with the other boys until they stopped being cruel.

The boy’s mom made the boy promise to never fight with other kids at school, but she never told him how to get the cruel kids to stop being cruel (I’m not sure anyone really knows how to do this), so he was very frustrated and frightened at school. 

The boy also cried when he was very angry and frustrated, which made the cruel boys act even worse toward him. 

The boy’s dad told him to ignore the cruel boys, which was the boy’s first lesson in shutting down when things got bad. He learned that lesson very well. You could even say that he was an expert in shutting down. 

The boy’s dad was very old fashioned, and thought that being tough was one of the most important things in the world. The boy’s mom thought that being smart was one of the most important things in the world.

Because the boy loved his parents, he tried very hard to do what they wanted. He tried to act tough, and he tried to act smart. He was rather stuck, though, because he wasn’t as tough or as smart as his parents wanted him to be. 

Years went by, and the boy grew tall, but inside he always felt very small. 

The tall-on-the-outside-but-small-on-the-inside young man was very lonely, and he tried to make friends with people the same way that he tried to get his parents to love him. That is, he tried to figure out what people wanted from him, or how he thought they wanted him to be, and he tried to do or be what they wanted. 

After a long time, the young man started to forget who he was, because he was trying so hard to be someone else.

The young man didn’t know it, but he was hurt on the inside. His thinking was tangled. Imagine if you wore glasses that were broken, but you didn’t know they were broken. The way you see the world wouldn’t be very close to the way the world actually is. 

The young man sometimes hurt other people. He wasn’t always as nice a man as he’d like to think. Sometimes he would get very angry about things that weren’t important, like when he was stuck in traffic. He didn’t make good decisions about what sorts of people he hung around with. He hurt people he loved by doing things that felt good right away but that felt bad later. He wasn’t very wise.

The man got older and stopped making so many bad decisions. Partly it was because he didn’t want to hurt people, and partly it was because he didn’t like people he loved being angry with him, and partly it was because people stopped wanting to be around him because he wasn’t always very nice. However, he didn’t really start learning to think better. He just stopped talking with people. He stopped trying to be friends with people. This made him even lonelier, but by now, he was used to being lonely, and he didn’t think he deserved to feel better.

In fact, the man didn’t realize that it had been a long time since he had felt okay. 

One year, the man’s wife got sick, and the man thought that she might die.

The man did everything he could to help his wife get better. He went to the hospital every day, for weeks and weeks. He brought his wife flowers and talked with her when she was very afraid and very confused. 

The man thought that he was doing a good job taking care of his wife (and, really, he was), but he wasn’t doing as good a job taking care of himself. A kind person who he talked with had an idea that the man wasn’t doing as well as he thought he was. She finally got him to go to see someone to talk about everything that was going on.

The person he went to talk with turned out to be a very, very nice woman named Cyrene. 

Cyrene knew a lot about helping people with tangled thoughts. She knew a lot about helping people who are hurt on the inside. 

Cyrene helped the man understand how being hurt long ago broke him a bit inside. She helped him start untangling his thoughts, something like the way that you might carefully untangle a ball of yarn that a kitten has played with. She even showed the man how some of his thoughts were not helpful in his life. She showed him that unhelpful thoughts aren’t actually bad thoughts. You can have unhelpful thoughts without being a bad person. 

The man discovered that he wasn’t sure he belonged here. He always felt as if he had to prove to the world that he had a place here. He thought that he had to do something every day to pay for his space here. There were even times when the man thought he might be better off dead. When Cyrene asked him about that, the man felt like someone was hitting him. It was very strange.

Cyrene and the man talked nearly every week. Gradually, the man started to relax inside. It was like he had been gripping the world tightly and now he was letting his grip loosen up. It’s very hard to hold on tight all of the time, but when it’s all you know, it’s hard to let go, too.

When you’re very young, it’s easy to get confused and think that everything that is wrong is somehow your fault. Cyrene helped the man see that not everything was his fault. He often felt shame and guilt for the times he hadn’t been a good person.

When you do something wrong, it’s important to know that and to let other people know that. It’s called ‘being a responsible adult.’ However, guilt and shame are different from that. They don’t really help guide you to being a better person; they just make you feel bad. Sometimes other people can even use guilt and shame to control you.

Nearly a year after Cyrene and the man started talking, the man was looking out the window one sunny day. A butterfly flew into view and landed on a leaf. 

A butterfly with a torn wing.

The man felt as if static electricity was sparking in his mind. He realized that the butterfly didn’t have to have anyone’s permission to fly around in the woods or to land on a leaf. The butterfly didn’t have to ask anyone for permission to live in the world. It seemed to him that if a butterfly has a right to live, then so should he.

The man, for the first time, really started to understand and feel deep inside that it was also okay for him to be alive and not have to ask anyone for permission to be in the world. 

The man felt grateful to the butterfly. Somehow, the man felt as if the butterfly, with a few flicks of its fragile wings, had lifted a huge weight off the man’s mind.

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