From Absolem the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland to the ancient Chinese philosophers, this little creature has always stood for constant change and wisdom
The caterpillar, symbolically speaking, stands for the automatic habits of day to day life. The way in which human beings work, eat, sleep and go about their business without stopping to ask themselves why they are actually doing it. Basically, the caterpillar stage is a sort of autopilot which leads us towards the future without us paying any particular attention to it. A pleasant habit. A comfort zone in which we find ourselves day after day after day.
Obviously it cannot last forever. Sooner or later, it will occur to all of us “caterpillars” to ask ourselves some hard questions about the meaning of life, or to wonder why we make certain choices rather than others in relation to our relationships, work, how we behave, and so on. The question for those of us languishing in our caterpillar stage at the mercy of events is always the same: why? Not to worry. That is the precise moment when our caterpillar, symbolic totem animal par excellence, begins to grow and lead us to an understanding of the reasons for our torment.
So the caterpillar grows, and at the same time accumulates information, evidence, suffering, notions, disappointments, doubts and uncertainties. In fact the stage of metamorphosis requires us to travel this troubled path. Or to quote Lao Tzu, a renowned Chinese philosopher from the sixth century B.C., “What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly”.
Only when we touch rock bottom and can no longer stand the day to day routine which is crushing us can the caterpillar finally evolve and turn into a chrysalis. To face its metamorphosis in utter solitude, with nothing to fall back on except courage, this little creature manages to transform the impossibility of change into a marvellous and satisfying reality.
Another symbolic explanation of the caterpillar is that found in a work we never tire of quoting, Lewis Carroll’s literary masterpiece, Alice in Wonderland.
Here this creature (named Absolem) represents the extreme rationality of adults in the face of the uninhibited and at times perilous curiosity of children, Alice being the perfect example. In this case, the caterpillar is not entirely well-disposed towards the fair-haired little protagonist of the story who, with the lysergic assistance of a mushroom, has to find the answer by herself. Simply by growing.
To take matters a step further, Alice’s caterpillar (or Absolem), is a hard, intolerant creature as much as it is wise and rational. A literary character capable of eliciting hard questions, not only Alice’s famous “Who am I and what am I doing here?” but also able to provide definite answers. Before turning into a marvellous butterfly, Absolem leads Alice to an acceptance of the mantra that we are constantly evolving and that change, at the end of the day, is simply a part of our lives.
So that Alice finally comprehends and comes up with a brilliant answer to the caterpillar’s question.“Who are you?” the peculiar creature asks her at a certain point in the book. And Alice replies: “I – I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.” Lesson learned.